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Life at the Cellular Level: Dealing with Wireless Communications in Libraries

By: , Posted on: June 29, 2017

Cell phone zone library

Dan told Carmen that the wedding was off. He didn’t feel right about their relationship. He needed space. He didn’t want to cause pain, but he had to tell her the truth. And he told her on his cell phone, near the reference desk of a public library in California.

Helen was on reference duty that afternoon. She heard everything.

“Actually, Dan is a creep,” she says. “Minutes after he bust up with Carmen, he stood beside the periodical rack and phoned Cindy. They’ve been an item for weeks, and Carmen never knew about it. She’s better off without him.”

Helen hears cellular conversations on every shift. As the use of portable IT grows, she also finds herself begging researchers not to leave their laptops unattended in public areas. She has lost track of the number of misplaced cell phones she has returned to flustered owners, and is constantly asking kids to turn down their cell-based recorded music. Cell phones elicit her deepest contempt.

“I can’t help hearing what cell phone users say,” she explains. “I’m forced to listen to dope deals, charity scams and attempts to sell stolen goods. I hear intimate calls that would embarrass a phone sex operator. I’m tired of it.”

If Helen asks a cell phone user to continue a call outside the library, she often receives an incredulous look.

“It’s as if I’ve committed a serious breach of conduct. Cell users are astonished that anyone – especially some librarian – would dare to interrupt their calls. They don’t seem to realize that they’ve been letting everyone within 50 feet know about their lovemaking techniques. Apparently portable IT has given rise to a new conception of personal space.”

Exactly. Portable IT allows people to create their own little worlds, wherever they are. They can say what they like as long as they’re wireless. Cell phones can also foster the illusion that private communications are somehow privileged and secure. Those who rely on the dwindling number of pay phones still whisper, and cover the mouthpiece when they relay sensitive information. But cell phone users often assume that they can wander wherever they like, discussing anything from the trivial to the classified.

Kids . . . and parents

Across the globe, librarians tell similar stories about cellular intrusiveness. A Children’s Services coordinator in Vancouver notes that cell conversations don’t necessarily stop for Storytime.

“I’ve had trouble for years with parents who plant their kids at my feet, then stand at the back of the room to chatter on their cells,” says Debbie, who offers storytelling and puppetry programs. “It’s an ongoing problem for me, especially when several cell users chatter at the same time, and I’m forced to speak louder and louder. But the latest and even more irritating trend is what I call the cell child. While I’m working hard to capture my audience’s imagination with a recent Caldecott winner, the cell child in front of me – perhaps as young as five – is on his or her cell to a friend across town. Sometimes I have a couple of cell children in the audience, and they send text messages to each other. I don’t blame the kids. It’s their parents with whom I have a serious issue.”

But when Debbie asks parents to restrict their children’s use of cell phones in the library, she sometimes receives angry replies.

“I’ve had parents come at me with free speech arguments,” she says. “They believe that their cell children should be able to chat anywhere. I tell them that if their kids tried it at school, the teachers would shut them down. That’s usually enough for most parents, and the phones disappear, at least temporarily.”

Another matter of concern is parents’ dependence on cell phones to stay in touch with unattended children. For example, a mother leaves her young son in the library while she goes shopping at nearby grocery store. The little boy knows how to use the cell, but gets upset when Mum takes over an hour to buy groceries. The librarian is forced to allay his fears and try to explain that Mum hasn’t abandoned him altogether.

“My administration urges me to be diplomatic in these situations,” says Debbie. “Frankly, I feel like tearing a strip off the parents. I’m a librarian, not a social worker. People shouldn’t treat my branch like a daycare. Besides, the children really do get scared when all they have in the way of loving care is a wedge of portable plastic from the phone company. The last time it happened, I told the father of a six year-old girl that I was on the verge of calling 911 to report a lost child. That got his attention.” Librarians in large urban areas also mention the risk of leaving children unsupervised in areas that a kidnapper or pedophile might frequent.

“A parent hands his child a cell phone and tells him to wait in the library, go read a book, whatever,” says Dan, who works in Adult Services at a library in the US Midwest. “The frightening thing is, we’re increasingly aware of certain really awful people who use our resources – who pull up kiddie porn sites on our terminals, for instance. I worry that one day they’ll inveigle a child to join them outside the library, to see the proverbial new puppy in the back of a van. All we’ll find is a cell phone that the child left behind in our washroom. I don’t think that this sort of scenario is improbable, not in our downtown branches.”

Dan believes that cell phones contribute to a false sense of security for some parents, and suggests that librarians should inform them of the kinds of risks that prevail in public libraries. He notes that parents are often unaware of the need to safeguard their children in all public places.

A cell-free zone

One traditional but nonetheless effective way of discouraging cell phone use is to post signs banning them. Contrary to what some librarians think, a cell ban is not unduly harsh. Nor is it a threat to free speech. A ban stops nobody from saying what he or she wishes, as long as the conversation takes place outside the library and out of the hearing of patrons who need a quiet environment. Restaurants, theatres, schools and hospitals have imposed bans on cell phone use without controversy. Aboard commercial aircraft, your fellow flyers might tell you to stow your cell before the flight attendant has a chance to inform you of the strictly enforced in-flight ban.

“Many libraries already post signs that restrict cell phone use,” says Barb, a Canadian library consultant. “You must remember, however, that not all signs are clear and easy to understand. For example, one library bought no-cell signs from an American supplier. You’ve probably seen these signs: a cell phone in a red circle, with a red line running through the centre. Close up, they looked great. But when we tacked them above the circulation desk, the graphics became indistinct. It looked as if we were banning bananas from the stacks.”

Barb recommends a phased-in approach to restricting cell phone use in libraries. First, librarians can post large signs near the front entrance.

“The initial message should be simple: please turn off your cellular phone in the library. Librarians should back this up by asking cell users to go outside if they need to make calls.”

After several weeks, Barb recommends subtler signage at the entrances, plus more signs in reference and stack areas.

“I’d avoid telling people that the library has a no-cell policy, mostly because some people don’t like the word ‘policy.’ It can sound authoritarian to some patrons, who will make a point of flouting the rule. The best course of action is to suggest that the cell phone user is distracting other patrons. At which point, the user might look a little embarrassed, and shut off his phone. In most libraries, librarians can eradicate cell phone use in a couple of months. Regular patrons will simply accept the fact that the library is a cell-free zone.”

Barb has been resolute in her treatment of cell phone users since her days as a public librarian in New York City. A decade ago, she worked in a branch frequented by a man who liked to phone his friends and regale them with tales of his amorous exploits. His conversations were loud and offensive. One day, after concluding a long and boastful call in the reference area, he heard his cell phone ring. He answered it.


“Good afternoon, sir. This is the librarian. We’ve been forced to listen to you for weeks. None of the people who work here believe your stories, although your wife might. How about turning off your phone? A little silence will keep everybody happy.” And he was never heard from – or overheard – again.

About the Author

guy robertson

Guy Robertson is an Instructor at Langara College and the Justice Institute of British Columbia, Canada. Guy is noted for his research into book and manuscript theft, data loss and protection, and financial fraud and forgery. He has delivered keynote speeches, seminars, and workshops at conferences and has published several books and papers including Disaster Planning for Special Libraries (2015) and Robertson on Library Security and Disaster Planning (2016). He is in the process of writing the book, Disaster Planning for Libraries.

robertson on library security and disaster planning   disaster planning for libraries

If you are interested in purchasing one of Guy Robertson’s books, visit the Elsevier Store. His books are also available online via ScienceDirect.

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