An Open Letter to Visiting Professionals

February 7, 2009 at 9:25 am 21 comments


Thank you for coming–we love to share our space and are happy to have you here. As in many libraries (and I suspect in yours), we have a policy here that states: No Food or Drink in the Library. We hate to tell our patrons no, but have no choice—this is a sensible policy as food and drink stain furniture and carpets and destroys library materials. In this age of the ubiquitous Starbucks cup, coffee cop is one of the worst parts of our jobs.

We try to enforce the rules fairly, but sometimes we do not see the offense. However, when you approach the public desk with a steaming cup of coffee in your hands, you should expect to be told about the policy. Please do not roll your eyes, sigh, or scowl—as you know, we are on the front-lines and just doing our job. When you follow-up with “I am here for the [Insert meeting name here]”, please understand that is the library equivalent of a celebrity exclaiming ‘Do you know who I am’. It does not change the rule which we are duty bound to enforce fairly.

Please keep this in mind when visiting another library—we understand your desire to have coffee while at your meeting. We understand you are careful and are unlikely to spill. We do not want to tell you no. However, we can not make an exception for you. It is unfair. It makes our job harder. Please do not ask. You see, the other patrons do not know who you are.

Thank you.


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  • 1. cwood  |  February 9, 2009 at 11:19 am

    What would happen if your library loosened the status quo?

  • 2. Michael Stephens  |  February 9, 2009 at 11:47 am

    This concerns me a bit. I’ve had library books in many situations involving coffee, bathtubs, campfires, steaming hot bowls of soup…

    I agree with cwood – maybe looking closely at our policies for revision instead of focusing on being a “cop.”

    Please see:

    How can we eradicate the theme of timidity that runs throughout our profession? How do we work to become stronger, prouder, and more willing to do our job of walking up to those loud or obnoxious persons and politely yet firmly telling them that they must either change their behavior or leave the library?

    Our focus should be more on reinforcing existing policies instead of banning technologies. Focus on trust and open conversation instead of new rules. Focus on understanding those folks who might be breaking your rules by listening to their needs. Then act. You and your users will benefit.

  • 3. Mike  |  February 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    Our Alternative:

    No increase in problems since we changed from our old ‘no food’ policy, but a huge increase in good press. 🙂

  • 4. jeremy  |  February 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Carpets at worst are replaceable. Patrons are not.

  • 5. Peter Bromberg  |  February 9, 2009 at 12:57 pm


    I strongly disagree with the idea that you have no choice about the policy, and also question how sensible it really is. Whether or not it’s sensible of course is determined by what you are trying to achieve, so that’s a good place to start. What is your library trying to achieve?

    If your ultimate goal is to make sure the carpet never gets stained and the keyboard never gets spilled on, then sure your policy is sensible. If your ultimate goal is that your customer’s choose to spend some of their very limited free time at the library, then perhaps the policy isn’t quite as sensible as it first appeared.

    Library policies that prevent food and drink may have been sensible in the past (or at least easier for us to get away with), but it’s important to realize that the climate in which we operate has changed. Customers today put much more of a premium on convenience, and have many more options than they used to for getting their “library” needs met: They can get information on the Internet; They can get storytimes at their local bookstore; They can get programming at their bookstore, bank, home depot, etc. We’re not the only game in town any more, and we can’t write our restrictive policies as if we were.

    Additionally, in our current economic climate very few retail stores are turning customers away because they have a cup of coffee in their hand. They need the business. So the library may be one of the last remaining places in the community where customers are being told, “sorry, no coffee here.” If I was told I couldn’t bring coffee in to any place but an operating room I’d say, “Ok, I’ll spend my money–and my time–elsewhere, thank you very much.”

    Remember that every policy decision we make is a trade-off between competing values, and policies that were developed in a different time and in a different climate need to be re-evaluated to determine whether the trade-off still makes sense. A “no food” policy supports the value of a clean, stain-free library, and minimizes replacement of materials, furniture and computers. The trade off is that people may choose not to come to the library at all, or much less frequently. A “food allowed” policy supports the value of creating a welcoming, barrier-free environment for your customers to enjoy the library. The trade-off is, theoretically, the occasional spillage and damage resulting there from.

    I say “theoretically” but in fact we have a lot of data on that. The question of whether or not to allow food/drink in the library has been raised regularly on the Publib digest over the past 10 years, and overwhelmingly libraries have reported that their fears of allowing food were unwarranted. The feared spillages are so rare, and so easily dealt with, that libraries realize that the trade off is minimal. Allowing food/drink has very little down side, but it has a great big upside for your customers. Not to mention the fact that staff would no longer have to endure playing the dreaded roll of “coffee cup.”

    Ultimately, I think these are local decisions that are best made by libraries taking into account their mission and their customers and finding the appropriate balance. Rare book collections, archives, etc. have a legitimate preservation role that clearly raises the value of a fairly enforced “no coffee” rule. But for your regular old public or academic library, I question whether a no coffee rule is ultimately detrimental to the mission.

    My 2 coppers.

  • 6. Ann Wilberton  |  February 9, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    I’ve been working up an argument to present to my bosses on just this topic. I see no point in turning away customers because once in a blue moon we’ll get a carpet stain which can be easily fixed or lose a keyboard. The thoughtful comments to this post have given me some more talking points to bring up. Thanks.

  • 7. jeremy  |  February 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Well said, Peter Bromberg.

  • 8. Mike  |  February 9, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    To be fair here – the original post wasn’t about the ‘No food’ policy — it was about adherence to the policy by visiting professionals (and I gather that means LIBRARY professionals visiting from other libraries). One of the reasons we changed our policy was probably the fact that library staff were some of the most frequent violators of the old policy – none of us wanted to be that person with the cup of coffee on our desk, saying “Hey – no food or drinks in here…” 🙂 There was definitely a “The rules don’t apply to us” attitude in place. I’d hope that wouldn’t apply when we went to other libraries, but I wouldn’t count on it.

  • 9. Scotty Books  |  February 9, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Why do people have to eat and drink everywhere, at all times? Why must their cellphones be on and active, at all times?
    Why can’t libraries preserve some cleanliness, civility, quiet, simplicity? and be different than slurping Starbucks wifi dens or cellphone jabbering, fingertalking academic info commons? Why emulate everyone else’s customer service paradigms; some of our traditional ones–as a refuge, a gathering place, a thoughtful getaway–are unique, and worth preservation.

  • 10. Cynthia  |  February 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Correct–My focus of this post was not the policy, but the ‘make an exception for me’ response and rudeness from visiting professionals.

    If you hate the policy, as clearly some do, I understand. Joke with me about it. Say ok and then ignore me. Express your distress with such an out-of-date policy, but please do not push me to change the policy for you. Timid profession? Maybe, but this seems more pretty aggressive to me.

    I say I have no choice because this is a policy that has been discussed in the past. It stands as is and is not up for discussion right now. (These discussion took place before my time. I hear there have been many talks and many opinions expressed.)

    For the record–I would love the library not to loosen this policy, but to eliminate it entirely. For the most part, it is not enforced fairly and rewards people who sneak around hiding their food/drink.

    I believe the policy makes sense—it has a solid basis. That does not make it a good policy–sort of like speed limits, which have a sensible basis, but are unfairly enforced (ask the best looking woman you know how often she gets a ticket!).

    There are many policies I disagree with and when the time comes, I stand up for my point-of-view. Believe me, I am not timid (often to my detriment). I speak out personally and professionally–always have, always will.

  • 11. Peter Bromberg  |  February 9, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Hi Cynthia,
    Perhaps your intended focus was the issue of making exceptions for professional colleagues visiting your beautiful library (and I basically agree–why make exceptions for other librarians, but not your own customers), but clearly what resonated is the larger issue of the policy. You can’t control what readers are going to respond to 😉

    I hope you didn’t feel personally attacked, or feel the need to defend yourself. Having said that, you did write that you have “no choice—this is a sensible policy as food and drink stain furniture and carpets and destroys library materials”, which suggests that you support the policy. So it’s perfectly reasonable for our readers (and I’m one of ’em) to point out reasons we think the policy is not a good idea and ask you to discuss why you think it is a good idea (if in fact you do.)

  • 12. Anonymous  |  February 9, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Some people need caffeine to productively work with information. After all, we let them take the books home amongst cigarette smoke, animal dander, and food/drinks galore – why are we such control freaks about the library setting? We’re not a sacred space anymore. We have to get over ourselves.

  • 13. mellen22  |  February 9, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    I’m confused. You have a large public library that hosts professional conferences? and you don’t allow coffee in the community room or the meeting rooms? I actually find that hard to believe. But perhaps I’m brainwashed by the local public library system. All branches allow some types of food and drink. The main branch is combined with the local state university library and also allows food on all floors. Fascinating. It must be interesting for visiting professionals to see how an old-fashioned library operates.

  • 14. Janie L. Hermann  |  February 9, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    Cynthia and I work at the same library, as I think many may know. I have been here 10 years and we have flip flopped on the food/drink policy more times than I care to count.

    We have had many iterations of our food policy (from anything goes to nothing goes and everything in between) and *much* heated debate on staff about this issue. I am firmly in the camp of allowing drinks in the library as long as they have a lid. I am not even truly opposed to food as long as it is not smelly and won’t leave a huge mess.

    To address mellen22, we are not an old-fashioned library at all. In fact, we are quite progressive in many ways. The food/drink thing is one of our sticking points for some reason.

    For the record, we do allow food and drink in our conference room and we also allow it our very large community room that is directly off our library cafe. So we do allow food in the library, but (at this point) only in certain zones.

    I for one am going to suggest we revisit this issue yet again at a staff meeting as I truly hate enforcing this rule since I don’t agree with it.

  • 15. Cynthia  |  February 10, 2009 at 8:28 am

    I do not feel attacked. I am glad the post has hit a nerve (even if not the one I originally intended).

    I find the choice of keeping an old policy that has merits or changing to a new way of working very symbolic of libraries in the 21st century. As a new librarian, I think it is hard to understand how deeply some of these things run.

    As I try to determine what it means for me to be a librarian, it often bangs against these types of issues. The culture in which I work is radically different from my previous career. The transition is difficult–I want to make a mark, but I don’t want to put-off people either. I want to make change, but not just for the sake of change. It is a fine line.

    This discussion makes me realize that the creation of policy is not ever really a completed project. It would be nice to better understand the why of many policy items–what was the original intent, etc. Without a history, much of my input is based on incomplete knowledge.

    I appreciate the opportunity to speak and more important to listen.

  • 16. cwood  |  February 10, 2009 at 11:16 am

    The Library Journal article touches on many examples of timidity in the library profession. It is interesting to note how individual library food and drink policies rose to the top of the discussion thread.

    Why were we satisfied with audiobook incompatibility? Why don’t we collectively demand innovative catalog interface improvements? – just curious.

  • 17. Anonymous  |  February 10, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    I think what is generally missing from these discussions of rules is that when we talk about loosening the rules that comes with an expectation that patrons will act reasonably. In many communities this is not a problem. In many places patrons are astonished that it’s really not cool to plop your butt on top of a table and break out your value meal or KFC picnic.

    If you say something to that group, but not the gentleman sipping his covered coffee quietly you are “discriminatin” and everyone loses.

  • 18. jislsnhd  |  February 12, 2009 at 2:04 am

    It is the Entropiauniverse ped which make me very happy these days, my brother says Entropia Universe Gold is his favorite games gold he likes

    , he usually buy some Entropia Universe Money to start his game and most of the time he will win the Buy Entropia Universe Gold back and give me some cheap Entropiauniverse ped to play the game.

  • 19. Bill Drew  |  February 12, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    I will say I agree with the intent of your post but do you allow visiting professionals to use your phones? Do you allow the meetings to continue after the library closes? Do you do free xeroxing for them if they need copies made? I think the food issue obscures your real point. you need to separate it from the food issue.

  • 20. Anonymous  |  February 13, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Does anyone have a link to an image of the sign? It SO belongs here:

  • 21. LibraryJo  |  February 16, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    We don’t have a food policy…our only policy is if you bring in CHIPS expect to share them with the staff! I can’t remember the last time we had a customer “accident” with food and drink!
    When books go home they get up close and personal with food, drink, water, children, pets and probably lots of SCARY stuff. Don’t think about it too much!

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