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Although we librarians are usually the ones who do the shushing, I was recently shushed by a patron at the suburban Philadelphia public library where I work.
First, she stared at me disapprovingly. When that didn't succeed, she dialed up her expression to an indignant glare. Finally, when I continued to converse with the patron I was helping at a volume clearly too loud for her liking, she aimed an angry “Shhhh!” in my direction.
I excused myself, approached her, and explained that the fellow I’d been speaking to was a regular who had serious hearing loss. He did wear hearing aids, but if I wanted to help him find the book he wanted, I still had to raise my voice — a lot — so he could hear me.
To her credit, she apologized. I returned to the circulation desk and resumed the lopsided conversation she’d interrupted, with me shouting and the patron responding in a normal tone of voice, until I was able to determine which book he needed and show him where it was shelved.
When he left the library, smiling, book in hand, I felt good. Another satisfied customer! And yet I admit that when I first saw him approach the circulation desk, my heart sank.
I'm soft-spoken by nature. For someone like me, maintaining a conversation at top volume is hard work. Besides, it never really feels right to holler in a library.
I’ve had plenty of practice carrying on high-decibel conversations. My dad got progressively deafer as he got older, and I learned how to crank up the volume if I wanted him to hear me. So I knew I could do it. But I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it.
Then, as I watched that patron leave, it suddenly occurred to me I could soon share his predicament. I was recently diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an incurable inner-ear disorder, one of whose symptoms is hearing loss. Which means that, sooner or later, I might be one of those people you need to bellow at to be heard.
I don’t need hearing aids just yet, but I already have some mild hearing loss. If it’s just the two of us and there isn’t a lot of background noise, I can hear you perfectly well. But in a crowded restaurant or on a busy street it often sounds as if everyone has suddenly started mumbling.
It's exasperating having to ask people to repeat themselves, and they don’t much enjoy it either. In fact, after we dined at a bustling bistro, a good friend recently confessed that rather than having to repeat her words every time I said "Sorry, I didn't catch that!" she began to censor herself before she spoke.
"I asked myself if what I was about to say to you was worth saying twice because I knew I might have to repeat it," she told me. "If it wasn’t, I just kept quiet.”
Nobody wants to have that effect on people. Nor does anyone want to be left out.
As I watched that patron leave the library, I resolved that from that moment on I would “shout it forward.” Which is to say I would treat everyone with compromised hearing exactly the way I hope to be treated when and if I go deaf myself.
If your hearing isn’t 100 percent and you come to my library, I will not only dial up the volume but, where I used to finish our conversation as quickly as possible and feel relieved when it was over, now I’ll chat with you in exactly the same way I would chat with anyone else who comes to the circ desk. But VERY LOUDLY.
Because enjoying the library isn’t just about getting-a-book-and-going. It’s also about the conversational back-and-forth that makes us part of a community.
The fact that our book chat or small talk carries all over the library, distracting the folks valiantly trying to get through Middlemarch or focus on the New York Times crossword puzzle, can't be helped. And if they want to shush me, let’s just see them try.
Rebel with a cause
I’ve been at this for several months now and this is what I’ve found: once you get used to it, hollering in a library is fun! Breaking the rules for a good cause: what’s not to love? In fact, after a good high-volume chat, returning to my Library Voice can seem rather dull.
I invite you to try this yourself. Once somebody asks you to speak up or repeat yourself a few times, crank up the volume! Speak the hell up. Yell if you have to! See if you can finish the conversation without their once having to ask you to repeat yourself.
And the next time you're at the library? Think before you shush.
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