For one reason and another, I have spent a lot of time working in libraries and coffee shops over the last few months. (If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seen my copious photos of the chai lattes at Darwin’s.)
I love both settings, for different moods and often different kinds of work. But it occurred to me recently that both places offer a way to strike a balance between privacy and being in public.
In a library, it is of course generally expected that you won’t – or don’t have to – talk to anyone. Though many libraries now offer group study spaces, you can also settle in quite comfortably with your laptop at a table or in a deep armchair.
I spent an hour in Lamont Library (at Harvard) one recent afternoon with about fifteen other people – all of us tucked up in different corners of the Farnsworth Room, typing contentedly away at our computers or scribbling in notebooks. We weren’t oblivious of each other’s presence, but we didn’t have to acknowledge it, either.
The collective presence in the room formed a kind of reassuring cushion for me. Introvert that I am, I still like to know that there are other people out there in the world (or right next to me), working on their own projects, doing their thing. I like knowing I’m part of that collective, without having to talk to anyone.
In a coffee shop, the boundaries are more porous. There’s food and drink, for one thing, and generally also music. (The music at Darwin’s ranges delightfully and eclectically from classic rock to indie folk to the occasional country song.) I’ve learned the names of a couple of baristas, and I know most of the other ones by sight – and I’m sure I surprise no one, any more, when I order a medium chai latte.
At Darwin’s, you still don’t have to talk to anyone – but the general volume is a little louder, the vibe chummier. People do sometimes ask if they can share tables, borrow a chair, or make use of a power strip or outlet. I know a few of the other regulars by sight, and occasionally I bump into a friend or colleague. I listen with pleasure to the baristas’ banter as they sling drinks behind the counter or bring new supplies up from the basement. (It reminds me of my days as a barista at the Ground Floor, long ago.)
Here, too, the background noise forms a sort of comforting baseline: the small noises of footsteps and chatter, the whirr and hum of the espresso machine, blend into a pleasing buzz. I can (usually) detach my brain from following individual noises, letting it rest in the general hum, as I jot down notes (or a to-do list) or type away on my computer. Around me, there’s usually a mix of fellow workers on their laptops, elderly men perusing the newspaper, the guy who brings in his pastels to sketch, and chattering pairs of friends.
I love my solitude, however I can get it: a solo lunch in Harvard Yard, a quiet evening at home alone, even disappearing into a book on a crowded subway train. But I also love this contradictory mix of privacy in public. I like being part of the rhythm of a place, even if – sometimes especially if – my thoughts and words can remain all my own.
Do you like hanging in out libraries and coffee shops?