Food in the Library

I recently read a very interesting blog post over at Letters to a Young Librarian (a fantastic library blog written by Jessica Olin), about libraries and food. She explained her library’s policy and her own viewpoints as follows:

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.)… 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.

I think this is an interesting mindset. I’m glad she acknowledges that a lax food policy is not going to be a reality for every library, especially those with special collections. An appropriate food policy is actually something that must really vary across different institutions and must really be very dependent on a variety of circumstances.

To me, it seems to come down to a balance between being collections-focused and user-focused. Many institutions choose to be heavily collections-focused; they simply cannot risk potentially exposing their collections to food or drink, so they forbid everything. I have been to institutions (mostly archives and special collections) that literally forbid any and all food and drink, including closed beverage containers and even including water. You are allowed NOTHING. And honestly, this makes sense for some institutions. Some of the documents I was handling in the Newberry Library Special Collections reading room were one of a kind, as in there is literally no other copy. I wouldn’t even trust myself to have a water bottle near such items, and was happy to run out to the water fountain in the hall when I got thirsty.

However, with the advent of new service models and the push for a more relevant, welcoming presence, many academic and public libraries are starting to become more and more lenient about the presence of food. The key is striking a balance. Yes, we want our patrons to feel comfortable and welcome in our libraries. No, we don’t want to exclude them or make them feel delinquent. But, we also don’t want an infestation on our hands. One of the commenters on Olin’s post said that after the large urban academic library she works at started permitting all food they instantly developed a rat infestation. One: gross; two: oh my God, the books.

The library I work at allows close-container drinks but has a pretty strict no-food policy, although we tend to be lenient in practice when it comes to cold snack foods. What do you think? Should libraries allow food? When is it appropriate and to what extent?


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