Cell Phones in the Stacks: Should Libraries Move to Ban or Restrict the Ubiquitous Devices? (Policies)

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"Hello? HELLO? HELLO? I CAN'T HEAR YOU VERY WELL. CAN YOU HEAR ME? ... That's better. Sorry about taking so long to pick up the phone. It was in my book bag, and I couldn't find it ... I'm at the library studying. Do you need something? ... No. I don't mind. Let me read this back to you to make sure I've got every thing: a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, shoestrings, and crayons for Billy's art project. Do you think the grocery store will have shoestrings and crayons? No? Does he really need the crayons tonight? Okay. I guess I'd better get off the phone so I can get to the store. Besides, the librarian keeps gesturing for me to lower my voice."

As the technology becomes more popular, cell-phone usage in libraries is proliferating. And although a few patrons may be using their phones to access online library catalogs, most are using them for their primary purpose. Excessively loud cell-phone conversations, however, can disturb other library users and interrupt reference interviews, bibliographic instruction, or circulation services. Some cell phones even offer obtrusive music in lieu of the traditional ringing sound.

So what can be done to preserve a quality library atmosphere and ensure that students can enjoy a quiet space in spite of widespread cell-phone usage? (There were nearly one billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide in 2001.) A number of options are available to librarians, ranging from the draconian to the relatively benign.

The outright banning of cell phones is likely the least popular option among patrons, but it might be tempting to consider it. Although most libraries have refrained from this harsh step, some, such as the Iowa City Public Library, have pursued variations of this policy by hanging signs that ask patrons to turn off their cell-phone ringers.

Public schools in several states have enforced bans on cell phones since the 1990s, but in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, many lawmakers and school administrators are rethinking the value of cell phones during crisis situations. Policies are being rewritten and some banning laws are being abolished to ease parental concerns and promote students' feelings of security. Trends such as these must be weighed by librarians when considering how to deal with cell phones. In addition, we must consider the potential resentment of patrons when a ban is enforced. This action could even be viewed as a barrier to library use--a result that no institution is likely to accept.

Space for speaking

Designating library space for cell-phone use is an option, provided there is space available. Usually space is a valued commodity in library buildings, and management and staff must work together to find an appropriate area for cell phones. Depending on the size of the library, a space-utilization study, which includes a floor-layout diagram, a study of patron traffic-flow patterns, and customer surveys, may be needed. A diagram of each floor of the library provides a topographical view of the physical objects used by patrons and staff, and also gives the square footage by room to help decision-makers better understand the difficulties and costs involved with choosing one area for cell phones over another.

Determining traffic flow in the library will help identify which areas are heavily used as walkways and conversation areas. The goal would be to select an area already accepted as "a loud place." Traffic-flow patterns can be developed primarily through observational data-gathering techniques. Customer surveys should be used to gain formal input from patrons about preferred cell-phone usage locations. This option requires more effort on the part of staff than simply banning cell phones; however, it is a compromise that could benefit everyone.

A new cell-phone technology known as "Quiet Calls" is under development to help cell-phone users in quiet environments. …