In The Zone*

Since my last post was a rant about students inability to understand what Silent Study means, I thought my next post would be a good place to discuss the whole idea of zoning and whether or not it works. It got pretty long, so click the cut for more.

If you’re a none Librarian reading this and wondering what the hell ‘zoning’ is, then its a pretty simple concept; it’s about creating different areas or zones within your library for different types of study. These will differ from institution to institution, but common ones are Silent Study, Group Study or Quiet Study. Sometimes there are different rules about food and drink in each zone as well. The idea is that students identify the most appropriate area for the type of study they need to do, and therefore the Library is able to offer something to suit every style of study, thus pleasing everyone. Sound reasonable? Is their any University library in Britain that isn’t offering some sort of zoning by now?

It’s a nice idea, but in my experience it doesn’t work as well as it could. For a start, it seems that our students usually just go to the area they like, regardless of whether it’s the most appropriate zone or not. So you get loud group work being done in Quiet Study and individuals studying silently in Group Study and two people working together in Silent Study… Sometimes I just want to go around the building and shuffle them all about until they’re in the right place! There’s also the unavoidable fact that we have a finite amount of space, and often zones are not large enough for the amount of people who want to use them, thus leading to overspill into other areas. And unless the space is thought out carefully, you could also end up assigning too much space to a zone that isn’t that popular.

Then there’s the challenge of enforcing these zones. Even if a student specifically chooses to go to Silent Study, they will often go with a friend and have a whispered conversation about something they’ve just seen on Facebook, annoying everyone around them in the process. Or they will go to Quiet Study fully intending to work quietly, only to find all of their friends are up there and have just finished an exam and soon a full on party’s on the go. It’s the usual problem; people want one rule for themselves and another for everyone else. They want everyone around them to observe the zoning, but they want to be able have a snack or talk to their friend if they choose to. They’re also sometimes unable to fully grasp the concept of the zone, I’ve lost count of the conversations that go a bit like this:

Me: Excuse me, this is a silent area, you can’t talk here
Student: But I can whisper, right?
Me: No, that’s still a form of speaking.
Student: But what if I talk really quietly?

At least ‘silent’ is something you can clearly define, I sometimes lose the will to live trying to explain to students that they are not being quiet, despite their loud protestations that they are!

But this is how it begins; if you don’t get a handle on this sort of behaviour quickly then complaints are made to the Helpdesk, angry emails are sent, Student Course Representatives start getting involved… It can quickly spiral out of control.

A few months ago I attended a CPD25 event called Managing the Learning Environment. During the discussion sessions, it became clear that Zoning was a problem for all libraries. One librarian said that when they had arranged their zoning, they hadn’t thought they would need a big silent area as they had surveyed their students and most didn’t want one. However, once the zones were in place this became one of the most popular areas to study and students were complaining that there wasn’t enough space. Another told me that they had tried to keep their library as quiet as possible and felt able to do so because there was a large building next door full of social space for students to share with the local community. Turned out students preferred to come into the library to socialise with each other because there was less chance of running into their parents!

On the whole, I think zoning is a good idea. Today’s students are given such a variety of types of coursework that expecting the whole library to operate in silence is just not realistic any more. Rooms in Halls are often small, some students live far from the University; where else are they going to go to do their group work? But it has to be managed properly, and that means enforcing the zoning from the very first week of term. Staff need to be prepared to walk around the zones and speak to those who aren’t observing the rules. If the zoning has been thought through properly then you shouldn’t ever have to get too heavy-handed; just explain to them that there’s a better area for them to work in and would they mind moving to it? 90% of the time they won’t mind.** And it will show the students who are observing the rules that their behaviour is appreciated.

The idea of flexible zoning is also something to consider, especially if your library is small. We change two of our Quiet Study areas to Silent Study during the summer exam period, which does seem to help. I’ve also found that the areas without PCs in are often easier to keep quiet, so perhaps it’s still worth keeping some areas PC free? Furnishings are important; the quietest parts of our library are furnished with old-fashioned ‘carrel’ style desks that do seem to discourage students from talking. In fact, comfy seating in Silent Areas is definitely a mistake as that’s the first place students will flock to with food and friends!

However, I believe there’s an element of expectation management to be considered here too. I’ve actually seen emails from students claiming that they expect the silent area to be “as silent as studying in my own room, with the door closed” which is so unrealistic as to be laughable. A PC area with 60 machines is never going to be as silent as a room with only one person in, it’s impossible. If that’s the atmosphere that a student needs, then they really should re-think working in the library. Furthermore, I think that students should be encouraged to help manage these areas themselves. The quietest library I’ve ever worked in was one of the University of London Research Libraries, whose main users were postgraduate students who did an excellent job of keeping the library quiet; they shushed us more often than we ever shushed them! If all the students would follow the rules that they want everyone else to follow, then the whole subject of zoning wouldn’t such a minefield and I wouldn’t have written over 1000 words about it!

What are your thoughts on zoning? Does it work in your library? Do you long for the days of nothing but silence, or do you think libraries should provide a place for group study? Let me know in the comments (and share any zone related rants!)

* I look forward to some bewildered Britney fans finding this post…
** I’ll discuss the other 10% another time…


One thought on “In The Zone*

  1. I think our zoning (which I must confess I had nothing at all to do with!) is more successful than most – but probably because…

    a) We enforce it, including with special library security guards
    b) The students are pretty good at enforcing it themselves, particularly in the completely-silent-no-computers areas.
    b) There are no computers in the Silent Areas. You’re right, it really does help.
    d) Our building (a 70s one) happens to be laid out well for easy zoning, with several self-contained floors and lots of noise-damping concrete. Total accident, I suspect, but it works!

    Having said that, we still get regular complaints – partly because of the expectations management thing, and partly because I think that what we see during the day is rather different to how it is late in the night and at the weekends. There’s also a tension between PGs and UGs, I think, in how seriously they take their studies.

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