One item on the library’s new strategic plan (draft PDF here) is to explore the possibility of putting a cafe in our library. Rolled into this point is the assumption that we will be evaluating our current food and beverage policy.
Currently, no food is allowed in the library, and beverages are allowed only if they are in containers with lids that don’t have to come off for you to drink out of them. We even have a huge bowl of water-bottle-like pop-up lids in the entry way so that you can make un-approved containers (like soda bottles) into approved containers. Though I gotta say, sipping soda through a pop-up lid is … odd.
One amusing consequence of this policy is a daily silent feud that goes on around the garbage cans. Nobody knows who put signs on each of them saying that you’re not allowed to throw food wrappers or other food-related garbage into them, but each garbage can has one, and there is a difference of opinion about the value of this type of approach. So every day somebody goes around and turns the signs so that they face the wall. And every day somebody else goes around and turns them back so that everyone can see the signs. It’s one of those mysteries that sits at the back of your head, not important enough to investigate, but interesting all the same.
Anyway, we had our open forum to discuss the drafted strategic plan, and quite a large part of the forum time was taken up over debates about the food and beverage policy. Some students were vehement that they’d prefer to walk to the student union (about 100 yards away) than to introduce aggressive, pest-killing chemicals into the library, burden the custodial staff, and make us face replacing ruined books. Other students talked about the need to be trusted not to put their caramel rolls into reference books, and about how difficult it is to unplug a laptop, pack it and your books up, walk to the student union, come back, unpack everything, plug in the laptop, and continue working. It was fascinating to see students debating amongst themselves about trust and responsibility and how far the library’s should go in either way.
And what does the library think? Well, we have a working group assigned to look into the matter, but they haven’t reported back to us yet. Some librarians are passionate about the need to maintain our policy, while others are in favor of liberalizing it, at least a little.
As usual, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I can totally see the benefits of keeping fumigation, cleaning, and replacement costs down. We also house three computer labs, and the IT people on campus love it that they don’t have to clean food out of keyboards over here. But on the other hand I have a very hard time enforcing the policy as it is now. This isn’t because I lack the gumption to walk up and make people take their ice cream cones outside. I’ve done that. I’ve also turned away a pizza delivery, suggesting that they eat it in the entry-way and providing napkins.
But I’m also working very, very hard to make the library a welcoming place, and to seem approachable to every student. I remember being a student lugging books and laptops everywhere and spending hours and hours on end in the library. It’s a fact that students are spending longer and longer in the library, and the library is the busiest building on campus. I’d like to keep it that way. It also puts the liaison librarians in a very tricky position to charge them with being everybody’s friend but also to put them on the front lines of enforcing this policy. As a student, if I’d been “caught” eating in the library I’d be too embarrassed to go to that librarian and reveal my ignorance and inadequacy as a researcher. It takes guts to go to the reference desk, and that would have been enough to keep me from making eye contact, let alone approaching the desk.
So for now we’re considering whimsical table tents (along the lines of “Dude, that’s gross” next to a picture of pizza on a book). And we’re still suggesting that people finish their dinners in the entry way rather than at the computers. But I, for one, will be happy when the library comes to a consensus and can put all of our efforts behind a policy that balances trust, responsibility, consequences, and stakeholders’ interests. I’m just glad I’m not on the working group that’s trying to strike this delicate balance.