When Shush Comes to Shove

Want to catch the latest knock-down, drag-out fight? Forgo the Rock’s star turn in The Scorpion King, and check out your local library instead.

In the last quarter of 2001, attendance at New York’s public libraries increased 10 percent (by about 4 million people), as the newly jobless sought out What Color Is Your Parachute?, résumé workshops, and computers with free Internet access. At the same time, budget woes have forced the NYPL to make serious cutbacks. The result: a sharp rise in angry patrons.

Library users are allowed just one half-hour computer slot at a time, necessitating strategic planning worthy of Operation Enduring Freedom. During her four months of unemployment, Lisa Smith, a 23-year-old art consultant, went to the Yorkville branch almost every day before it opened and stood in line for up to 40 minutes to reserve one of three computers. “And if the printer or the disk drive doesn’t work,” she says,”then you’re totally screwed. Rage! Like once I came in to do a mass mailing of résumés and it wouldn’t read my disk. I begged these two middle-aged, Third Avenue demi-socialites to switch with me, but they wouldn’t. So when the librarian asked me if either would cooperate, I shouted, ‘No, they won’t, because they’re idiots!’ “

At the Mid-Manhattan branch, people have been signing up twice under assumed names, and even manhandling other patrons to get to a computer. “This one guy would get hostile if someone didn’t get up right at the end of their time,” says Jeff Muñoz, a page. “Once, he just started pulling this woman’s hands off the keyboard and screaming, ‘It’s my time! I’m not going to calm down!’ Security had to drag him out.”

Fights aren’t limited to computers, either. Even “time-out” areas like the new-books and video-DVD sections at Mid-Manhattan can get out of hand. “Whenever I put the videos out, this one young guy will block everyone with his body until he gets what he wants,” says a page. Isaac Cheng, a paralegal who loves libraries, complains, “Other people get inflamed with desire for a specific title just because they see you going for it. It happened to me with a Bergman movie. There was no way the other guy was a Swedish-film enthusiast!”

Public libraries have long accommodated both scholars and snorers, intellectuals and lunatics (yes, yes, often one and the same). But the old regulars are finding they have little in common with library newcomers, who tend to surf rather than study. One author who frequents the 42nd Street branch says, “People get calls on their cell phones, and you can tell it’s about a job they’ve applied for. And you feel awkward because you’d really like them to be quiet, but then again, it’s someone’s livelihood.” He adds, “It feels like it’s no longer your place. “

And some regulars are fighting back. Johnny Lew, a 31-year-old grad student in nineteenth-century American travel literature, practically got in a fistfight after shushing someone who was chatting about apartment listings. “I didn’t want to succumb to that stereotype that I’m just a geek so I’m gonna back down,” he says. “I told him, ‘I can’t concentrate.’ And he told me I should get a blood transfusion to get out all my hate. Then I really couldn’t concentrate. So I said, ‘Do you have a problem with me?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do about it?’ He stood up: ‘What do I want to do about it? What do you want to do about it?’ I just glared and said, ‘What do I want to do? I just want to read!’ “

When Shush Comes to Shove