A few days ago, our Professional Practice class had a quick conversation about the messages our physical layout communicate. (It came out of a bit at the end of a chapter from How People Learn.) A student, in her follow-up blog post, referred to the “silent contract” that libraries issue when a patron walks in the door. What a brilliant, brilliant phrase.
What does our library layout say about what it expects our patrons/students/faculty/parents to do, say, not do, or not say?
I don’t have my own library anymore, but I do have a private office. And one interesting thing I notice as we wander in and out of our faculty colleagues’ offices is how much of the occupant’s personality is manifest based on what’s on their shelves. The computer folks tend to have fewer books than the LIS folks. Some have more binders, some have more photos. Some have whiteboards for visual brainstorming or chart paper on the wall, and some staffers have beautiful original artwork. One of our faculty members is rather well-known for her love of squirrels, so her office door and interior are covered with gifts of all things squirrel. Some office reflect travel; others are more spartan.
I have the detritus from my years in K-12 education (e.g., the shekeres gourd I used to use to get students’ attention), along with gifts I’ve received from students (e.g., the softie with the blacked-out eye or the little library kit complete with date due stamp), books I’ve written, nice notes I’ve received, magnetic poetry, and photos and mementos that remind me of my family and travels. One of my colleagues calls it a “museum,” but trust me — it’s nothing that wouldn’t fit right in on a K-12 teacher’s desk! The rest of my bookshelf is actually books, and they clearly transmit three things I’m passionate about: children’s/young adult literature, teaching and learning, and librarianship.
Under one set of shelves, there’s just enough room for my grandmother’s stool, so we can pull it out on those rare but wonderful occasions when my two guest chairs aren’t enough. The overhead fluorescent lights do a number on me, so I have scattered, mismatched lamps instead. It’s cozy to me, and I like that I can plug in my iPhone to speakers and listen to music when I’m in the mood.
So yeah. My office offers a silent contract, and I hope it’s an inviting one, even though I’m always having to shuffle papers to clear a space for guests. I should ask some of my more-frequent visitors to double-check.
It reminds me of a pair of stories I heard on the radio program The Story a few days ago. First, there was the story of Reddy Annappareddy, who, amid a community where 22 of the 25 pharmacies were national conglomerates, started his own pharmacy, placing customer service — from free home delivery to running errands for folks — at the top of his priority list. After 5 years, he had gone from zero income to $50M in profits. Customer service paid. That was his not-so-silent contract.
And secondly, the host Dick Gordon interviewed Andy Shallai of Busboys and Poets. In a discussion about the B&P menu, Shallai said that the menu transmits who is welcome. So if you want people to feel included, then, on the most basic level, a kosher meal signifies that those who keep kosher are welcome, and collard greens signify that Southerners, specificlally African-Americans, are welcome. The menu was Shallai’s silent contract.
We all have some institutional elements that we cannot control. (I’m thinking of the nearby school that is an amazing collaborative space, where more room is given over to tables for group work, with books stored off to the slides, but which has an entrance door flanked by the largest, tallest, darkest circulation desk this side of Folsom Prison.) But we have those we can.
What does your library’s silent contract say about you, the learning you aspire to host, and the people who are welcome? I’d love to know.
Photo “Contract” by Steve Snodgrass from Flickr, used with a Creative Commons license