Quiet in the Stacks, Please

To protect the need for silence, students should be more considerate of others in UChicago’s “quiet zones.”

By Luke Contreras, Columnist

Our friends at the Chicago Thinker might tell you that free speech is dead, but I can tell you that it’s alive and well in the stacks of Regenstein Library. Indeed, the large “quiet zone” signs visible every few feet seem to elude the comprehension of even the brightest minds and self-proclaimed “future Nobel Laureates.” Those who seek solace in the silence of the stacks will be met with frequent disruptions from students making phone calls, frat guys snickering at some asinine joke, or even the noise of someone clipping their toenails (yes, I really witnessed this). Though such annoyances are simply that—annoying—distractions occurring in quiet zones on campus can negatively impact those searching for a place to focus or collect their thoughts. These “quiet zones” are the few sanctuaries of peace and silence available to students amidst the stressful, bustling scene of UChicago and should be treated with their due amount of respect.

There are many reasons why one might need a quiet space. In my time at college so far, I have been lucky enough always to have either a single dorm room or a respectful roommate. Not everyone, however, shares this luxury. Some students live with loud or disruptive people, which precludes them from focusing on their work when it really counts. Others might live next to busy streets, frequently traveled walkways, or house lounges (we know how loud those can be). Even those who do not identify with any of these reasons still have a right to the tranquility that these quiet spaces are intended to provide. At a minimum, the mere existence of such University-provided spaces validates the necessity of silence in students’ lives.

The most obvious motivation behind seeking a quiet space is to find a spot to improve focus and productivity. In the presence of loud conversation and other disruptive noises, successful studying and completion of coursework cannot take place. The silence afforded by these spaces can aid in the process of enriching one’s understanding of their coursework and serve to benefit them not just for the class, but also in the long run.

Quiet spaces can also be a safe haven for students who are being pushed to their limits. Silence not only enhances one’s concentration but also provides health benefits by lowering blood pressure, stimulating brain growth, and improving insomnia. Silent moments are critical to one’s mental health in the high-stress college environment. On a daily basis, we travel through crowded areas, weave through clusters of students in hallways, cross busy streets, eat in loud dining halls, and engage in other behaviors that put excessive pressure on us. Quiet spaces serve as a refuge from the busyness and liveliness of our day-to-day lives, and they are often sought out by individuals who recognize the importance of taking these types of breaks.

UChicago has several designated spots for quiet study. Of course, not all of them are prone to disturbances. The tremendous echo in the main reading room at Harper imposes the toll of embarrassment on anyone who makes noise, the monotonous drone of air conditioning in Mansueto drowns out side conversations, and the intimidating presence of math majors and professors in the relatively small Eckhart Library reading room is enough to keep things quiet. But for spaces that pose less consequences such as the Regenstein Library bookstacks or reading rooms—it is easier for people to bend the rules and make exceptions for themselves. Receiving an incoming phone call while in the stacks? A quick conversation shouldn’t hurt. Watching a short video but forgot a pair of headphones? It’s only a few minutes and won’t be too loud.

When we use the triviality of our noisemaking as a defense for disrespecting the sanctity of quiet spaces, we communicate to others that the rules do not apply to us and invalidate their right to a shared, silent space. The more of us who decide to make this justification, the greater the magnitude of our collective actions becomes. Making exceptions for ourselves not only disrupts those who came for silence but also undermines the integrity of the quiet spaces that we inhabit.

The majority of spaces on campus allow and sometimes even encourage conversation or loud noise. When you inevitably find yourself in such a place throughout the day, pause for a moment: You will see the frenzy of schedules and deadlines, and you will hear the clamor of the last remnants of fun dying at UChicago. As you suddenly realize the gravity of the tension surrounding you, do not forget that we all have the privilege of entering a few soundless, stress-free oases scattered throughout our campus. And when you enter these places, remember not to bring any of that noise with you, for your sake and for ours.

Luke Contreras is a third-year in the College.