Students struggle with library noise

SMU says design matches students’ evolving needs

The Atrium is open to the entrance to the Saint Mary’s University library, allowing conversations and other noise to carry into the ground floor of the library. Photo: Peter Marrack
The Atrium is open to the entrance to the Saint Mary’s University library, allowing conversations and other noise to carry into the ground floor of the library. Photo: Peter Marrack

On a sunny fall afternoon, Saint Mary’s University students file into The Atrium and its adjacent Patrick Power Library as if they’re at the horse races, rushing in and out to place bets.

Some students say the commotion is distracting.

Fred Okello, a mature student who attends a Friday honours seminar in The Atrium, says he’s been to Killam Memorial Library at Dalhousie University, Mount Saint Vincent University’s library and a couple of others, but none compare to the library at Saint Mary’s.

“It is the most chaotic place I’ve seen in my life.”

The library was reconfigured three years ago as part of a $17.5 million project to have a green learning commons on campus – The Atrium. During those renovations, wooden doors separating the library from the outside were removed. When Dal built an atrium to enclose the Killam’s central courtyard, in contrast, the library’s exterior doors were retained.

Fred Houlihan, a librarian and spokesperson for Saint Mary’s, says The Atrium’s open design – with its tall glass windows, skylight and café – accommodates a new kind of learning.

“These are modern students. The line between socializing and study is blurred, so we have to create spaces to adapt to that,” he says.

He says different people have different sound thresholds, but that campus security enforces a reasonable level of quiet under the school’s noise policy.

A “Be Considerate of Others” sign greets student as they walk in, and Houlihan cites the library’s second and third “quiet floors” as alternatives to the noisier atmosphere downstairs.

Still, Okello says he’s not happy. He says security is not efficient in shushing offenders and it is hard to find computers to work at on the second and third floors.

“Several times I have complained. They say they’ll take care of it. Security comes, but then 30 minutes later the noise starts again.”

The university’s manager of security, Lonnie Ratchford, says there are a handful of noise complaints per month, “but it’s not really an issue.”

Kayley Pinkney and Julia Daniel – two fourth-year students who discuss laundry, lunch plans and boyfriend disputes in The Atrium – also blame their surroundings for their failure to concentrate.

“I always think of this area as more casual,” says Pinkney.

Daniel agrees. “I don’t get much work done … People are always walking by.”

Tom McBride, co-creator of The Mindset List, an annual evaluation of the modern student for American universities, says he would opt for a different design.

“The concept of a large, open space is at odds with the modern student. They work via text and mobile,” says McBride, based out of Beloit University in Wisconsin. “There needs to be a strict distinction between the library and student center.”

One of the architects who oversaw the design of The Atrium, Peter Connell, says “collisions between spaces and acoustics are an ongoing issue.” He recommends better furniture, glass walls, glass doors and a thicker ceiling to muffle or absorb sound.

“Libraries are not for studying so much as they are for accessing information,” adds Connell. “They’re not stuffy quiet places.”