Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake (or Oranges or Pizza): Food in the Library

"Oranges" is a CC Licensed photo by Aarthi Ramamurthy.

I was staring around my office, trying to decide what to write about this week, and my glance settled on the Clementines I brought for a snack. They were just in season, so I've been eating as many as I can before they go away again. The last batch I bought are candy-sweet and delicious.

And that got me thinking. We allow food, drink, etc. in the library where I currently work. The theory is that if we treat the members of our community like adults - trust them to be careful with their soda and french fries and the like - then they'll act like adults. (Also, policing things like that in a library with five levels takes a lot more energy and time than we're willing to give.) Theory and reality don't always coincide, but it does in this case: people who come into my library do exactly what we expect them to do. They are careful with food and drink. On the rare occasion when something is spilled, they almost always clean it up and/or report it to us. The worst behaviors actually come from atypical library patrons - people who are only here on a rare occasion.

I know this wouldn't work at every library, but I also think that letting go of the stranglehold librarians try to have over patron behavior can engender more goodwill than it will cause carpet stains. Trusting people to treat the library well, and communicating that fact (I let freshmen know we allow food and drink in the library and then explain, "You're adults. We're going to treat you that way."), is a great way of helping members of the community to feel a sense of ownership for the building and its contents, to feel like they are part of a community.

So I say, with a tweaked version of a phrase that is frequently misattributed to Marie Antoinette: "Let members of my community eat cake, drink coffee, and consume whatever they want." It's their library, after all.

How about you? What do you think about food and drink in the library? Does your library have a policy against it?


  1. I'm a "yes, but" for food: is it cleaned up? is it messy? does it smell? does it inconvenience others?

    As for how the community members act, it's like so many things: it can really vary from place to place.

    One of my pet peeves is how librarians get all judgy on each other: so for example (and NOT saying you are doing this) the reaction to this post being "silly old boring librarians who say NO to food at such and such a library" instead of giving any benefit of the doubt about what that library has seen re food/drink in their own library and it not working for them.

    1. I can't imagine letting food any- and everywhere in a large, urban, public library. I like the "buy stuff from us and eat here in the cafe, but nowhere else" that I've seen in a few public libraries.

      Also, I totally agree about the judgy wudgey stuff. So much about our work is context-driven. It drives me BONKERS when somebody from a library at a large, public university tries to give me advice and gets all twisted when I don't take it. Um, hello? Our entire collection development budget is about equal to what you spend on one department.

  2. In our large, urban academic library, we discovered that food in the library just doesn't work, but it's impossible to police and, also, once you let people bring in food, they will never stop.

    Our history of this is that we decided to just give up and let people bring food in because it was impossible to police. So, we changed our policy to "no messy or smelly food, no delivery to the library, clean up after yourselves." That did not work at all. The library, which is probably the busiest place on campus, became a total mess and we developed a rat infestation. We got rid of the rats and started a "no food" policy again. It's very hard to enforce but we can't have a food free-for-all.

    An interesting turn-of-events is that we'll be getting a coffee shop put in the library in a few months. I'm sure that will make the food situation even worse

    1. I wonder if the coffee shop will make people more responsible instead of less? An obvious "you CAN eat here" area could help. It could also make things worse.

  3. I have a 2500 square foot open layout library in a high school of 400 students. It's just me, and I supervise all of the lunch periods. I allow kids to bring snacks, sodas in bottles or other closed containers, and cold lunch items (like sandwiches) to the library. Part of this is for my own sanity; since I supervise all of the lunch periods, food smells make me hungry and a little cranky. Part of it is cleanup, especially since they can check out laptops and don't always think to wipe their hands before sticking their cheeto-covered fingers on the trackpad. The nice thing about an open layout and a small school, though, is that if I look up and a table is suddenly empty except for an empty bottle and a potato chip wrapper, I know exactly who left it and can assure that student that they are not allowed to eat in the library anymore because they don't know how to treat the space.

    Also--school rule is that food from the cafeteria can't leave the ground floor. So, that too.

  4. I'm in the public libraries arena and I've toured a few rural institutions in Michigan which have had a Keurig available -- $1.00 a cup. Lids are required. I love the idea -- as well as allowing patrons to have other (non-alcoholic) beverages with lids and/or caps.

    Not so certain about food...

  5. The large academic library I work at has a limited allowance food and drink. We have a cafe area with a lot of tables, and food and only be eaten in the library. Drinks can be brought anywhere in the library, so long as they have a a fixed lid, such as refillable coffee travel mugs and reusable water bottles, as well as 24 oz soda bottles with screw-on caps. Anything without a lid or with a flimsy lid (like, well, the coffee containers the cafe uses) can only be used in the cafe. Obviously, it isn't perfectly enforceable, but we do have security staff wandering the stacks every so often, and if they see something they can confiscate it.

  6. I allow food in the Library. We are a secondary campus Library with about 560 students. It came about really because we started a knitting club which staff and students got involved in and they would eat their lunch while knitting. It was a bit of they are eating so why can't we. I don't tell students they can eat in the Library but if they are doing the right thing I allow it. Generally the students that do eat in here are the senior students the middle school kids tend to eat first then come in. Not many problems just packets on the ground sometimes not often.