Our Reading Lives

Quiet Riot: Managing Volume Levels in a School Library

Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

I work at a large high school in the UK. For the past four years I’ve been managing the library alongside one library assistant.

It’s been a dream job so far, with extremely supportive upper management who give me free range to unleash any kind of book-pushing program I can think of.

A typical day for me means I arrive at 7:30 am where I meet a line-up of  students. By 8:00 am it’s busy and by 8:15 even busier.

Glenthorne High School Library

On average we see around 17,000 visits and circulate around 800-1,000 books every month. I know it sounds like bragging, and maybe it is,but the point is that we are very busy.


It’s a good thing.

I would much rather have those numbers than pushing aside tumbleweeds to get to my desk.

We have a little mini shop in the library where we sell stationery to the students. I operate that, do readers advisory and operate the circulation desk.

We have a wide range of students that use the library. From ages 11-19, they are in there, studying, reading, using the 30 computers that we have, buying stationery, meeting their friends and of course borrowing books.

What I struggle with is finding a balance between a level of noise that is acceptable to both me and the other students who are in there to read or quietly study.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind it if the students whispered because with over 100 of them doing it, it still generates a good hum. It’s that hum that I am chasing.

That might not be a popular approach in today’s library climate where we see libraries changing from their traditional roles to a more learning / creative based center.

Trust me, I’m doing that too. We have regular maker space programs, comic-cons, open mics, rowdy Twitter chats with authors, film clubs, LEGO-building tournaments, manga club and of course book clubs where we eat and talk loudly and be silly as we discuss our favourite books.

Yet in the times we’re not doing those things and are simply open for regular book-pushing business, I am constantly at odds with myself as to how quiet I should be making the library.

Here are some of the solutions I’ve tried so far:

1. Student Library Assistants: By far my most popular program and one of my favourites as well. We have a dedicated core group of students that help out with almost every aspect of library service including the things I mentioned above like running the shop and operating the circulation desk.

2. Increased signage: I hate negative signage so I put things around the library like this:

3. Speaking at assemblies: I regularly go to assemblies where I can speak to over 250 students at a time to promote an event or new books. I also use that time to remind them that noise levels sometimes creep up to levels that bother students and myself.

4. Throwing students out: This is my absolute last resort. Of course, if they are acting ridiculous or causing a disturbance I don’t even hesitate. However if I have four students sitting around a table with their work out I cannot bring myself to throw them out even if they are talking above a whisper.

The issue is, multiply that table of students by 10 and you have a much higher level of noise. I inform them very clearly that the last thing I want to do is ask anyone to leave, and it’s the truth.

Any school librarian can tell you that the job can feel very isolating at times. You work in a bubble and sometimes it can feel like you are unsure if what you are doing is right or if you’re missing something important.

That’s why I’m hoping that any school librarians who have faced the same conundrum can comment so we can share ideas and strategies around noise levels.

The good thing is that I have such a supportive upper management system that I have gone to them for advice and we are in the middle of hashing it all out. I am fully aware that there are some librarians who don’t have this support and my heart really does go out to them.

I recently attended a school librarian conference and one of the sessions was on managing behaviour. I was in a room of around 45 other great school librarians and it truly shocked me to hear that a high number cited talking back, swearing and making a mess in the library as part of their behaviour challenges. It made me realise how lucky I am not to have any of those problems.

Yet, my challenge remains and I’d be very interested in seeing what other approaches school librarians take with this issue.

Do you have a noise policy? Do you play it by ear? (no pun intended) Are you strict or laid back with the noise levels? I would be very interested to know how others tackle this!