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Whatever became of sh-h-h-h?

How many of you have a library in your town? Are you happy with it?

Our local library has an adequate variety of books, magazines, cross-reference filing, and even a Xerox copier; mostly on one floor. But there is a larger area upstairs for meetings, children's story hours, and other uses.

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Sound like an excellent representation of everything one might want in a small-town library? Ahh. . . but the most important entity is missing - quiet.

Why this is I have been trying to fathom.

Memories of my original hometown library surge in contrast: signs placed at child height signified ''Silence,'' though librarians placed fingers to lips also. Adults spoke only in muted tones or lowered voices on quick cue from more authoritative glances.

When I was in high school and using the scheduled library period, even a muffled giggle received a ''first warning'' look. Then, if even a paper clip bounced more than once on the glossy table-top, the head librarian swiveled from her small enclosure back of the potted palms and tilted globe to hiss: ''Quiet!'' Silence dropped like a curtain. Only the burnished pendulum of the wall clock ticked solemnly as it swung behind the glass.

Now, one sits trying to read or copy, while continual cacophony circulates around tables, behind shelves, at the desk; a telephone jangles and there is that disturbing steady thump of the copying machine with its added clunk of required coin. Besides this, the unchecked voices of children and adults (seemingly ''reunited'') are heard.

I have tried other libraries in nearby towns. Sad to say, the din is the same. I ventured to inquire why there was no discipline. Response was a shrug and smile, or an explanation that ''they'' were only volunteers!

Just lately, a telephone survey was made of how many used the library. I half-apologized before giving my candid reason for not doing so, but the caller's reaction was startling: ''I couldn't agree with you more.''

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She then elaborated on the fact that if I thought it was noisy during the day , evening hours were even worse since teenagers flocked under the pretext of study or homework only to sit and socialize. A retired teacher (and volunteer), she may have felt a lack of authority to reprimand. But I discovered there were attempts. Some high-schoolers had been sent home only to have parents show up for an irate meeting soon thereafter.

Why are not the young thoroughly briefed on the very purpose of a library? I would suggest grammar-school-agers be taken on a tour of the great New York library to be reasonably impressed. For there, compulsory silence is all!

Where are the signs (literally or figuratively) requesting quiet? Why can't experienced librarians (or firm volunteers) cope with the unruly? Perhaps my concentration has lessened with time, but I feel this permissiveness in public conduct has overrreached itself. Libraries - storehouses of knowledge - should not be public houses of bedlam!

A memorable motto over the main desk in my old hometown library said: ''Without books the richest man is poor.'' Such a sign should read: ''Without quiet the richest library is poorer.''

Libraries belong to the public - in deed, as well as word. But shouldn't we have as few of the latter in them as possible?

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