Library Etiquette: The mysterious meaning of the expression “Silence SVP”

McGill libraries have different kinds of study zones: rooms that can be booked for group study, conversation zones where students are allowed to have “quiet discussions”, and quiet and silent zones, where people are supposed to avoid talking and, more generally, avoid behaviours that can disturb the other students. The idea is to give everybody the possibility to find a place that meets their personal needs: some students need to meet to carry out group projects, some others need to study and discuss some topic with a fellow, while some others need to concentrate in a silent environment to effectively learn or write a paper. We are all different, it would be naive and deleterious to assume that everybody had the same necessities, and McGill took this diversity into account while organizing the libraries. This is great!

This is the reason why some doors carry the sign “study room” or “conversation zone”, while others are labeled as “quiet zone” or “silent zone”, and on their walls there are messages like “Shhh… Silence SVP”. Unfortunately, some either don’t see these signs, or have trouble understanding their meaning. I have identified five typical situations in which this happens, and as a library user, I would like to discuss them.

Number 1: Frequent whispering, stage whispering and laughing. Now, I can understand if you need to go to the washroom and ask your friend to keep an eye on your belongings. And I can tolerate it, if you need to ask a short question that needs a short answer, like “What’s the result of exercise 10?”–” It’s 2.3″. But if you need to ask 10 short questions, or you decide to explain to your fellow the Theory of Relativity, why the result of exercise 10 is 2.3, or what happened to your cat yesterday, then whispering in the quiet/silent zone is not the right thing to do. Speaking in the conversation zone is. Move there, or postpone the conversation.

Number 2: Starting to chat while preparing to exit the library. It has been a long day, you and your friends have studied hard, and you decide to finally leave the library together and have supper somewhere. You close your laptop, put your stuff in the bag, wear your scarf, grab your coat… in your mind you are already out of the quiet/silent zone, and you find yourself chatting with your friends. Maybe for 5 minutes, or more. Well, perhaps your mind has already left the room, but your body hasn’t. And neither have the other students who are sharing the room with you, and who are still studying. You will be out of the quiet/silent zone in 5 minutes, do you really have to chat while you are still in?

Number 3: Chatting while just passing by–e.g., to reach a room, see a person, get a book. You were out of the quiet/silent zone 5 minutes ago, and you will probably be out of it again in 5 minutes. You were chatting with your friends outside, and now you just keep chatting, as if the quiet/silent zone rules didn’t apply to you, but only to those who are coming to study. Guess what? They apply to you too.

Number 4: Chatting next to the washrooms. This can happen at those libraries where there are some washrooms adjacent to the quiet/silent zones. Now, of course within the washroom people can talk. After all, there is a door separating the washroom area from the quiet/silent zone. The problem is, sometimes people seem to think that chatting in the quiet/silent zone is ok too, as long as it is done close to the washrooms. Unfortunately, since you are in the same room and there is no barrier between you and the other people, you are heard all the same, and this is disturbing for those who are studying. Please keep this in mind.

Number 5: Chatting hidden by the shelves. Well, they say out of sight, out of mind, but this doesn’t mean out of hearing! If you have to make a call or talk to someone, make a little effort and reach the washrooms, or a room where talking is allowed.

These are the main kinds of situations that make me wonder why the simple request “Silence SVP” ends up being put into practice as anything but “Silence”. In addition, I have a couple of mentions for other situations in which the silence rule isn’t broken strictly speaking (pun not intended), but nevertheless its implementation is hindered.

Being very loud in group study rooms or separated corridors next to the quiet/silent zones. Of course you are allowed to talk there, and of course those who are studying will be understanding if you make some little noise, but please remember that a few feet from you there are people who went there with the expectation of finding a quiet place.

Speaking in corridors or group study rooms that are adjacent to a quiet/silent zone, but forgetting to close the door. Forgetting to close the door has the same effect as speaking directly in the quiet zone.

I don’t like being strict about rules for the sake of being strict. The point is that rules generally exist for a reason, and in certain cases violating the rules can be really deleterious to other people. If you can concentrate well in a noisy environment, that is amazing for you, but assuming that it works the same way for everybody would be superficial and somewhat overpowering. If quiet and silence zones have been established, it’s because the requests of those who need silence aren’t totally unsubstantiated.

A few weeks ago I went to the Library, and saw a whiteboard where the students were asked to write suggestions on how to improve the library. One of the suggestions was about making the quiet zones… well, quiet… as they are supposed to be. I couldn’t help writing next to it that “I agree SO MUCH”. I don’t know how many students consider the noise in quiet/silent zones a problem, but now I know we are at least 2 🙂

There are plenty of places where you can talk: study rooms, conversation zones, corridors, cafeterias, benches outside… there are, instead, only few places where those who need silence can expect to find the quiet environment they need, and these places are the quiet and the silent zones. If quiet and silent zones are invaded by words, endless whispering, chatting and laughs, then those who need a quiet place where are supposed to go?

Photo by @gradlifemcgill blogger @aliceintheanthropocene // personal photo

Banner photo: collage and adaptation of pictures  from

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