Acoustics is listed as a key element in virtually all productivity studies. Poor acoustics adversely affect the amount of work people get done. Despite the increasing use of computers and other equipment in libraries, acoustics appears to be getting little attention in the literature of library planning. This is particularly unfortunate because most workers can't do anything about the acoustics. While the lights, temperature, and chairs may be somewhat adjustable, the "acoustical system" is just there.
In most organizations the emphasis is on the ceiling, it almost always is treated with a sound absorbing material. The floor also may be treated--usually for aesthetic as well as acoustic reasons. The problem is the walls. Gypsum board, plaster, and concrete--the most common construction materials--are acoustical mirrors, reflecting a high percentage of all sound.
The most effective treatment for walls is the use of panels consisting of a 1" thick glass fiber board covered with an open weave fabric. At a minimum they should be placed on the walls near workstations. Workstations should not be placed directly against window walls because there is virtually no way to treat these short of hanging heavy, lined drapes.
Background masking of sound is probably the most overlooked approach to acoustics. Consisting of electronic components similar to a conventional speaker system, a masking system incorporates a sound generator, frequency filters to shape the sound spectrum, and a power amplifier. The result is a signal which sounds like the air noise in an air conditioning system distributed through specially designed speakers installed in the ceiling plenum. A background masking system has to be carefully tuned because if it is too quiet it will be ineffective, and if it is too loud it will be distracting. A well tuned system effectively masks equipment noises and conversation.
While not every organization may have the resources to install a masking system, there is no organization which can't afford at least a few well placed panels.