Brooklyn's main library has embraced its role as social hub for toddlers, teens and adults, shaking off the stigma of silence.
Toddlers race around bookshelves, school groups meander noisily and parents with children are tucked in corners reading aloud -- all in all, the youth wing of the Brooklyn Central Library is the sonic equivalent of a playground.
But here, it's not just the youth wing that's boisterous. Through the front door footsteps echo off the walls and in the main gallery people sip coffee at tables. The Popular library, a bluntly accurate name for one wing, is packed with adults using computers and browsing DVD's.
The Central library allows eating, drinking, chatting and even -- when there happens to be a concert in the 189 seat Dweck Center for Contemporary Culture on the ground floor -- very loud music. At most libraries, silence is golden, but here it is vitually non-existant.
Lined up in neat rows like minivans at a shopping mall are empty strollers decked out with the extra jackets, hats, bottles and bags awaiting the return of parents and children attending Toddler Time at the Central library. Toddler Time is one of the community programs offered for neighborhood toddlers ages 18 months to three years old. Toddler Time attracts about 30 toddlers which, according to library staff, means that about 70 people could be packed around one facilitator reading a book in the youth services area. Potentially due to the temporary closure of the Park Slope branch, this is a populated spot in the neighborhood. So whatever happened to the notion of the library as a quiet place to read and study?
"No one expects this to be a quiet place. If it is going to be welcoming to children you can't have silence," said Andrea Vaughn, the Coordinator of the Central Library's Youth Services at the library. Vaughn believes that a library should be a welcoming gathering place for the community and does not think that her library should be regarded as a silent reading room.
Vaughn has been with the Central branch for three and a half years though she has been a librarian for 12, first in Long Island and then in Queens. The children's wing, especially after three o'clock when school is out, will always be a lively area, but Vaughn says that the rest of the library is not bound to silence either.
There are 114 public access computers throughout the Central branch, a Tech Loft with 36 teen designated computers, and private meeting rooms for events such as a knitting group and, recently, a staff baby shower.
With the exception of the third floor Arts and Music section which is nearly always quiet due to its location, the rest of the library is bustling. In Vaughn's opinion, the library serves as a much needed community center where people can come use the free internet, attend a free workshop, work on a resume and teens can connect to an increasingly important social network.
Though, of course, the library is still a place for reading and studying, and a delicate balance has to be maintained.
"Our librarians or the security officers will ask patrons who are disruptive to keep it down. It's a balance between welcoming young people and groups, and also providing an environment conducive to reading and learning," Vaughn said.
For those looking for quiet, it might be worth the walk to the Pacific Library, on Fourth Avenue and Pacific Street.
Besides occasional shrieks of laughter coming from the kids room and a heavy front door hitting its frame from time to time, this branch is generally quieter than the Central Branch. Patrons clack away at the keyboards of computes tucked between shelves in the semi-circular main room, making it look as though the library is empty.
Corey Caine, the library circulation supervisor at the Pacific Branch, where he has been for nearly two years now, says that his library serves multiple purposes, "it's like a second home for some and a community center for others." Caine, who noted a significant jump in library users when the Park Slope branch closed, said that library users needed to be open minded about the noise level in the library because with kids and foot traffic, there will always be some bustle. "They should always expect to hear a certain level of noise," said Caine.
The idea that a library is a quiet space to read is not a new or unfounded concept. However, each library serves its community differently and with many families in Park Slope depending on them, the Central and Pacific libraries are people friendly places.
Still, Vaughn knows that libraries are generally thought of as silent zones, "I don't know that we'll ever lose that stereotype," she said.