Sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes …

This post is by our regular library correspondent, Dr Karen McAulay. In this post Karen asks: where and when do you do your best thinking? Are libraries the answer?

Recently I read a blog post by Richard Watson, in which he reported that he had once asked a thousand people when and where they did their best thinking.  And guess what?  Quiet, distraction free places won, hands down.

I must admit that my favourite was, “37,000 feet and half way into a gin and tonic”, but let’s face it, that precise combination of circumstances happens infrequently for most of us!   Similarly, although I find that a single glass of white wine beside the computer at 1.30 am is actually very conducive to the writing of dissertation chapters, I do agree that it’s not a good idea to make a habit of such nocturnal activity.

But about halfway through his blogpost, Richard got onto the subject of libraries.  He mentioned the plight of some public libraries who seem to be struggling with a feeling that they’re irrelevant to a large percentage of the population.  I sat up and paid attention when he stated, quite categorically, that in his opinion libraries should stop trying to be Starbucks and instead cultivate the quiet stillness that is so hard to find elsewhere: “We need to preserve silent spaces”, he said.  And he meant not just in libraries – they were just one example.

Now, it would be easy for me to leap onto my soapbox here.  I am, after all, a librarian.  I personally love deeply quiet research libraries.  My favourite place in the whole of Glasgow is the Special Collections at the top of Glasgow University Library.  What could be nicer than being twelve floors up, with fabulous views over the city and beyond, and – inevitably – an absorbing historic text on the desk in front of me?  If it’s sunny, the views are especially fabulous.  If it’s a howling gale or even a tumultuous storm, it’s still a lovely comfortable haven from which to observe it behind glass! It’s all the nicer knowing that mobile phones aren’t likely to ring, voices will be subdued, and everyone else will be working with the same level of concentration as my own.  Is it any wonder I like studying there?

Now, my own library – well, the one where I’m a subject librarian – has a very different atmosphere.  I work in a conservatoire.  I wouldn’t say it was like Fame Academy, but our students are very sociable, like working together, and interact with each other almost constantly.  Even our research is ‘practice-based’, which means there are lots of composers and performers (although the composers are likely to be at home or in a music studio.)

The only time you get deep stillness in our library is when there’s hardly anyone there…  And for that reason, we have a ‘Silent Study Zone’ in a glazed room at the far end of the library, so that the hermits can get peace while the extroverts are busy interacting.  It’s still not like Starbucks, though.  We don’t mind covered drinks being brought in, but mugs of coffee aren’t welcome and there certainly aren’t any cookies!

If you’re a research student or lecturer reading this, you may already be shuddering at the thought of such a buzzing atmosphere.  But rest assured, we do pounce if groups of students are getting particularly over-excited; singers attempting to sing-along-a-CD are shushed; and – most importantly – regular user surveys confirm that the vast majority of our readers like the library just the way it is!

Recent postings on The Thesis Whisperer have reflected upon places where we like to work.  And the ‘Shut Up and Write’ movement is proof enough that not everyone needs total silence in which to work.  Sometimes a gentle background noise is quite soothing, so long as it’s not intrusive – and here’s the crunch – so long as we aren’t required to interact with it.  If you can sit and write with a few friends, comfortable in the knowledge that they’re not going to interrupt you with chatter, but equally that you expect everyone to be writing rather than checking texts and Twitter, then you’re well set-up to get some meaningful work done.

So actually, I don’t think this ‘where do you do your best thinking?’ question has any single best answer.  Rather, I think you need that indefinable combination of relative peace and quiet, an absence of other distractions, and a bit of self-discipline. Where do you get your best ideas? Is a quiet library your idea of heaven – or not? Now, who’s going to suggest some really imaginative, maybe unusual places for getting those creative juices flowing?

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19 thoughts on “Sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes …

  1. mike says:

    I’d be OK with libraries like starbucks, but I work best with some bustle in the background, and can’t focus in the extreme quiet of a traditional library.

  2. Kat says:

    I have long ranted about the lack of decent quiet library spaces at my uni, and in Melbourne generally, but what really struck me was your observation that it is good to work alongside others who are also working with a similar level of concentration. This is definitely a major factor in how well or not I work in a space. It creates an environment where I feel you should work and it often pushes me through those patches where I feel the tug of procrastination.

  3. Craig says:

    Ahhh – as a practioner I’d like to add my voice to Karen’s – we (here at RMIT) recently ran a user survey – the no. 2 “gap” between what is important to users, and what we have available was…. “quiet space” – which sounds simple – but following close after is the call for group study areas.

    Go figure – we now have the users “shushing” the library staff!

  4. TokenLefty says:

    I do some of my best thinking in the shower, with hot water to warm the brain. It’s probably a bit nerdy to say (what’s the use of this blog if you can’t be a nerd?), but a steamed up shower screen also works well as a whiteboard. 🙂

  5. Cafe Hermit says:

    I do most of my best thinking and writing at my local cafe. I’ve always been a dead-silence study type my whole life, but since I last moved and began walking down to my local cafe and working there I realised I like the bustle of everything going on around me. Weirdly though, I’ve tried other cafes and none of them are conducive to study like this one! They play old 50’s music and its all open air and constant people walking by, usually yelling at each other in Italian. My all time favourite place for the past year while I was doing honours!

  6. Ailsa Haxell says:

    I’m a starbucks fan…
    Because i find the library too full of students wanting my working role, and the work office too full of staff, and home too full of ironing… and in each of these I am too easily distracted by emails …
    and i like coffee when I’m thinking and writing, and their taste in music matches my demographic…my soul is bought.
    Just occasionally i have gone to a suburban library where i know i will bump into no-one who knows me.
    Maybe i just need a bag over my head or a sign saying do not disturb…

  7. Irene says:

    I do my best thinking in a number of places, but particularly when I’m riding my motorcycle, especially if I go for a long ride, and in the shower. I’ll also often wake up in the wee hours of the morning with solutions to problems I was thinking about when going to sleep. I keep a pen and notebook beside my bed to write them down; if I don’t I’ll either forget them by the morning or be unable to go to sleep because they are buzzing around my head.

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