Ice cream in the library!

Maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong when we ban food in the library. Maybe we shouldallow food.

Let me explain. My husband and I were eating ice cream cones during one of his meal breaks at his job at a department store. When we decided I should get a rain coat while there was a sale going on, he proceeded directly to the front door of his store. I protested: “But we’re eating ice cream!” My librarian brain was already imagining an ice-cream spill on the books…er, merchandise.
“Oh, it’s okay to bring food in the store,” my husband said.
“Even ice cream?”
“Of course! I see people do it all the time!” He saw the incredulous look on my face. “We’re not in the business of turning away potential buyers.”

The concept was so foreign to me. Food near merchandise or books? The horror! Maybe in a Walmart, but not in a department store. Or a library.

Every library where I’ve worked or visited has had a statement about food and drinks. Drinks were typically allowed, as long as it had a lid.

Food is far more restrictive. Any library that did allow food allowed it only in designated areas, like a cafe or in a space outside of the actual library. The problem with these sorts of policies is that it turns away people from our “merchandise,” the books we lend. Understandably, we’re protective of our materials, but that includes being protected from all the people who don’t come to the library.

Another problem with this is the lack of cafe space. Cafes invite lingerers, precisely because they can eat–but there is only so much cafe space to go around. In fact, I’ve noticed this problem in a library cafe on campus–people camp out while noshing, and there are no other tables to go around. No wonder there’s been trouble with people sneaking food out of the cafe into the reading room or stacks areas. And no wonder there’s been trouble with people sneaking in food into the library from outside without taking it to the cafe.

It could be an enforcement problem–we’d have to step up our patrols and discard food when we find people flaunting the rules. But what kind of image will that give people? That the library is a military state, if I may be hyperbolic?

Rather, the problem could lie with the policies itself. Maybe we don’t need to so much improve our enforcement as we should consider alternatives. Changes. I’ve heard people talk about how food attitudes have changed; people tend to eat more food in places that they might not have otherwise eaten. Grazing, eating small meals during the day–all are new habits among people. Also, People eat while reading books at home–why don’t we allow it in the libraries?

That’s not to say that we should have a free-for-all with food–we still have to make sure that libraries are a welcoming space for all. But if the pre-existing cafe space is insufficient, maybe we need to create more food-friendly spaces in the library. Maybe the entire first floor? Or maybe designated spaces on each floor? If there is no space in the library where people can read and eat, we should create one.

This brings up the question of food policies. If we request people have drinks with lids to prevent spills, what kind of requests can we make of food? My brainstorm suggestion is: “Food must be contained and not present a spill risk,” but I feel like that’s not quite good enough. (Send it to the committee! A policy isn’t a policy until it’s been debated on for a couple of months!)

On the plus side, asking that foods be contained does preclude teetering ice cream cones, and help keep my nightmare of ice cream landing on books from coming true.

Fortunately, I didn’t spill ice cream on anything yesterday, though I did eat it quickly just to destroy any evidence. And I did find a good rain coat.

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