At least once a week we’ll have someone strut up to the desk with the same look of righteous indignation one usually sees in a seven year old just before they tattle on their younger sibling. Then they place their hands on the desk, lean down, and whisper in a sort of conspiratorial way “Do you have any kind of policy against cell phone use in the library?”
I always smile inside when I tell them “No, and we never have. As long as they’re not being a huge distraction for everyone in the building, then it’s okay.” Why do I smile inside? Because I know I’m about to deflate the ego of someone who just knows, who is fully positive, that they are right and someone else is so very wrong.
Now then, I know there are a few out there who say that I’m wrong and that cell phones are a damn nuisance and why do we allow them in the library at all. Well, turns out there are several reasons and I’ll hit a few of them right now.
First, damn near everyone in America has a cell phone. They’ve become just about as common as wallets and pants. When I get dressed every morning I put on my pants, my shirt, and then I grab my wallet, keys, iPod, and cell phone. Expecting everyone to just drop off their cellular device because it inconveniences a select few people isn’t quite fair is it?
The prevailing argument is that no one, or hardly anyone, needs to be that connected all the time. That may or may not be true, but let me give you a personal anecdote and you can take it for what it’s worth. A few days ago my son’s school bus was involved in an accident. My wife called me and was immediately able to get me and let me know what happened. I’m not a VIP. I’m a circulation librarian. I probably don’t need my cell phone on me all the time either. But you know what? I’m damned glad I had it on me that day. How do you choose when you’re not available and you’ll be absolutely certain that an emergency isn’t going to require your attention? Hell, only a few years ago, we didn’t all need e-mail addresses. Before that, we all agreed that every computer didn’t need a modem. Before that, no one needed to own a computer. And so on.
Second, most cell phones these days aren’t really so much a telephone as they are a pocket computer that happens to make phone calls. I’ve had people come up to me, iPhone in hand, to ask me a question about our online catalogue. They’ve already got the catalogue on screen and they’re right there, showing me what they have a question about. They were able to whip out their device, get on our catalogue, and start searching right away. They didn’t have to wait for a catalogue machine to be available and they didn’t even have to find one to begin with. The patron knew what they needed, went to that general area, and started searching immediately. I’d say that’s right in line with the fourth law of library science (Save the time of the reader.) and to deny them that device within our walls runs counter to what we need to do to get items into their hands.
Third, every public library I’ve worked in allows people to talk in a conversational tone of voice and at a conversational volume. You can sit at a table and talk. You don’t have to whisper. So, if you can talk to the person sitting next to you in what parents call “an inside voice,” then why can’t you do the same with a cell phone? What’s the difference besides the distance?
Fourth, people don’t seem to have any problem with notebook computers in the library. There doesn’t seem to be a big stink raised when a patron brings in their own computer, hooks up to the wireless, and starts doing things. So what do you say to things like Skype? I’ve seen patrons in study rooms and out on the floor sitting in front of their computers, headset mic on their heads, talking to someone across the Internet. That’s not a cell phone, yet it’s doing the same thing. Shall we ban laptops or Skype too?
Fifth, I use these devices too and in the daily course of my work. I’ve pulled up something on my iPod Touch using the library’s wireless and then ushered someone over to a shelf to get it. It doesn’t seem right that I can have a commonly available tool/device in my possession but you need to leave yours in the car.
And finally, at least for this little missive, since most cell phones allow some kind of e-mail functionality, that leaves things wide open as to what people can do with our catalogues and databases. All of our databases have some kind of feature where they’ll e-mail an article to you. So I do that, and now that article is on my phone for me to read that article whenever I want. It’s a powerful thing to be able to use a library database, make a few clicks, and suddenly the information you want is in your pocket and you never even touched your pocket.
Really, this seems to be a common sense thing. Is someone using their phone in a decent manner? If so, then where’s the problem? I know more than a few people who aren’t too happy that libraries have computers, DVDs, and CDs. Shall we ban those too, just because they disagree with them?
Believe me, cellular devices are only going to get more entrenched in our daily lives. In Asia, people watch television on them while waiting for the train. They use them to read the news, chat online, and of course to text and talk. But did you know that, in Japan, you can pay for something using your cellular? There’s a chip in the phone and you waive it in front of a scanner. It works just like swiping a debit card. Sooner or later, we’ll catch up to that. Did you know there’s an app for the iPhone that allows you store anything as a barcode? I can confirm that it works with library card barcodes and I’ve seen people using them at our self check out machines. I’m sure there’s something similar for Android.
Beyond that, there are apps for Android which reads barcodes. So what? So a patron takes the book, scans the barcode/ISBN on the back, and they’re whisked off to Amazon or Google Books and they can find out all about that title. Libraries need to get on this bandwagon too and release an app that does the same thing, but sends them to the library catalogue. Like I said, these devices are phones only in a sort of incidental way. Sure, they make calls, but my wife spends far more time doing other things with her Droid than she ever does talking on it. It’s her multi-faceted communications link to her world and her friends and family. Her co-op e-mail comes in on it, her Facebook message from our niece arrives on it, we found out that her cousin recently had a baby, and yes, I’ve sent her information specifically so she could use it on her phone.
Libraries are houses of information much like hardware stores are houses of tools. Banning cell phones from libraries is like banning saws from hardware stores. Both are necessary tools than can be bad if they’re used incorrectly, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary.