An Idea So Crazy… It Just Might WORK!

The world of independent school libraries is a varied one, and that is a blessing. Here at Independent Voices we hear from libraries that are large, small, boarding, day, rural, urban, traditional, progressive, coed and single-sex. Through this one blog we hear stories and solutions from each of these different environments.  Here is a story from a large suburban coed Upper School, and it’s a story in progress. The ending hasn’t written itself yet.


Like many libraries we’ve struggled with the issue of food management, working under the standard rules: no food or drink allowed in the library with the exception of water in closed containers. This has been the policy for as long as anyone can remember. The policy was generally followed, perhaps 70 percent of the time, but we have always found wrappers and spilled/dropped snacks squirreled away –occasionally not even ‘squirreled’ but tossed about carelessly. Our rules didn’t stop the entry of food, they just drove it underground.

Over the past 3 or 4 years, with the rise of the caffeine culture, we have gradually come to accept coffee mugs and traveler cups as long as they were covered—after all, we couldn’t tell what was in those travel mugs, whether it was water or hot chocolate, and we were not interested in checking each mug to see if the beverage was legal or contraband.

It got to the point where we were enforcing our rules fairly sporadically. If students were quietly eating a granola bar in a carrel, or came in with a Something Grande from Starbucks, we would turn a blind eye. Ice cream and yogurt, on the other hand, would get a request to eat outside. Naturally, as librarians are human too (yes, they are!) our enforcement would spike on rainy afternoons or when we had a cold coming on.

This is as much an issue of administration as anything, and it is entirely my responsibility to make sure rules are enforced consistently and fairly. I admit to frustration about having to have the food talk over and over, with little results. Our recent remodel means we now share a space with the Department of Independent Studies and Interdisciplinary Research, which leads to more gray areas and territorial differences.  The remodel also reinvented the library space as a particularly welcoming and relaxed gathering place, and our numbers were way up from previous years.

As the season’s research projects wound down, I started thinking about possibilities.  In fact, I was tempted to think outside of the (lunch) box.  At the AISL conference in Dallas/Fort Worth we toured Texas Christian University where they have a policy allowing students to bring in food (with a few exceptions). That inspired me to do a little research.  I send out a query on the AISL listserv asking for everyone’s experiences with food in the library. 32 librarians responded. Of these, 11 allow food in their library (including 4 that allow ‘snacks’ only), 15 allow only water in closed containers (4 of these allow “covered drinks of any kind”) and 5 allow neither food nor drink.  One respondent said they’d tried allowing food but are back to previous policy of water only.

With this information I felt inspired to have a trial run of a new “Food Is Okay IF” policy. I figured, if it worked, great, and if not, we’ll start out next year back where we started, no harm no foul.

I made a fresh start on a Monday, with flyers up around the library, announcing “The Mudd Challenge—Are YOU up to the Challenge?”   The wording was key: “Food and drink are allowed as long as it does not lead to mess… Indulge, but please eat responsibly. This policy will continue as long as the library stays tidy”.  


So how did it go? I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I made it clear to the students that they were able to bring food into the library as long as there was no mess. Full stop.  Period.  After one full week of the Mudd Challenge, we find that Mudd Library is cleaner than before. There was a noticeable reduction in trash left behind. I’ve reminded students that, for the Mudd Challenge to work, they’ll most likely have to pick up after their friends so that the ‘no mess’ rule is met.  There are still the occasional half-empty water bottles here and there, but the amount of food trash/litter has dropped significantly.

As far as mess goes, the students have truly stood up to the Mudd Challenge. Were there any unexpected consequences? Well, yes, perhaps a few.

The food experience was universally welcomed by students. They were very happy to be trusted with behaving well, with the idea that they are given a privilege that is theirs to lose if their behavior so dictates. Our school is grades 10-12 only, so we generally have more responsible students (GENERALLY, I say). Our schedule is such that there is no common lunch period, and some of our students do not have a free period in the middle of the day, so the ability to eat while working on a project was greeted with enthusiasm. On top of this we have no proper cafeteria. This is Southern California after all, and dining ‘al fresco’ is generally very comfortable. Of course last week we had triple digit temperatures, and the lounge that serves as ‘emergency cafeteria’ in case of inclement weather is fairly small, certainly not enough hold all refugees from the heat. The last factor to be considered is that we had AP testing last week, and while the library was not immediately affected, students are given half a day away from classes to prep for testing, and this most likely added to the library crowd.

After the first week of the Mudd Challenge, one thing I hadn’t expected was that the ability to eat food with while studying seemed to make students behave more casually. There were larger crowds around tables, and the simple expansion of numbers made the noise level rise. This might be due to the excitement of a new privilege, or to the AP giddiness, or to the heat outside. Or it might be due to the fact that when friends gather around a table with food the atmosphere changes to one of festivity—even if there are text books, binders and studying at that table.

One other effect I noticed was that I spent more time circulating around the library, chatting to students and educating them on the details of The Mudd Challenge. I realize that over the years I had slowly reduced the amount of time I spent out moving among the tables and carrels. Re-initiating this practice brought me back into contact with more students, and increased my positive interactions with them. If I regularly circulate even when there are no problems, then I am no longer only approaching a table to shush or enforce some rule.  This is good!

We are only 1 week into the Mudd Challenge, and have 2 weeks of classes left in the year. As we correct our stance, and work on education, it will be interesting to see how the students respond. I am hopeful that we can reach a level of equilibrium, where students are no longer forced to choose between lunch and studying, but where students are able to expect an atmosphere conducive to study at the same time. We will be taking notes and re-evaluating the situation at the end of the year, and I’m not sure what the verdict will be, but I am very happy to have taken the leap of faith toward the Mudd Challenge, and am looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Over to you, now:  Have you had similar experiences? What is your food policy, and are you happy with how it works out?  Please respond in the comments.


9 thoughts on “An Idea So Crazy… It Just Might WORK!

  1. Mostly our high schoolers visit the library during free time, and we started allowing food at the beginning of this year. The kids appreciate it so much. One thing we added: we have the trash cans emptied after lunchtime to limit the smell of food. We also increased the number of trash cans. Sometimes students leave trash, especially as the new rule got older, but it isn’t very much, and at least it isn’t hidden on the shelves as it was when food was banned. Middle schoolers sometimes eat in the library after school, and they are very responsible about cleaning up after themselves.
    Sometimes librarians say that bugs are a deterrent to having food in the library. I don’t really understand that perspective. The kids take books home and might eat while using them.. Anyways, we don’t have a bug problem. Also, our carpets are cleaned during regular school breaks and vacuumed at night – so the library stays tidy.

    • I’m happy to see a success story, and I like the idea of having the trash cans emptied after lunch. Will add that to our setup!
      Thanks, Elisabeth.

  2. Since I came to my high school library 6 years ago, I have wanted to make it a welcome place where students felt comfortable and didn’t live in fear of breaking one of the many rules. So I’ve relaxed some rules, or turned a blind eye to others – like the food policy. We had a “No food, water in closed containers only” policy although I’ve not seen it published anywhere. Some of my staff really enforced it (they were here before I was), others not so much – I admit I fall into the latter category. As long as it wasn’t a carry out meal or ice cream, I’d pretty much look the other way, especially since teachers would come in with coffee in a mug, and occasionally I would want to eat a granola bar myself. The mess was what drove me crazy though: wrappers and crumbs, on a few occasions, spilled beverages.

    We are redesigning the library to have more study and reading spaces for the students. I want more students to hang out in the library as long as they are relatively quiet and not too rowdy or destructive. I think I’ll try the “no mess” rule that you’ve outlined Shannon, in the hopes that they clean up after themselves more often. My staff will be wary, but it won’t be the first time for that either. As for bugs, we’ve had hummingbirds, chipmunks, chicadees and even had a mama duck and her ducklings go in one door and out the other, so bugs aren’t really a major concern.

    • Thanks for the picture of Make Way For Ducklings Through The Library! So sweet. Please report on your progress in this area if you do decide to allow food in the library. I know it will be an on-going conversation.

  3. I had to laugh at the statement “Our rules didn’t stop the entry of food, they just drove it underground”. Our high school library always subscribed to the no food, beverages in closed containers policy but there were always wrappers in the garbage cans, crumbs on the tables and hands in backpacks where the snack bags are. Not wanted to waste my time patrolling, I’ve turned a blind eye. I’ve been thinking all year about this issue since the number one comment on the student survey I sent out in October was to allow food. I like the idea here that we create a challenge and leave it up to the kids to determine if it is successful or not. Perhaps once we relax the rule, the “problem” might go away. And besides, I too, like to have a snack in the afternoon as well! Thanks for the post.

    • Personally my big pet peeve is having a rule that is not enforced, or enforced sporadically. All these ‘blind eyes’ drive me a little crazy, at the same time that I am as guilty as anyone. If we don’t want to enforce a rule, we should change it to something we can and will enforce.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. My school went without a librarian for a year. The library became a ghost town. My first initiative was to bring life back into the space, a la: BRING IN THE KIDS. I want to create the most welcoming, comfortable atmosphere that I can. I am in a very Brady Bunch space and my competition, if you will, is a gorgeous, food friendly, updated student center and adjoining student cafe complete with booths and a printer station [it looks a lot like Carolyn Stenzel’s redesigned space at Chatham Hall (] . Long story short, I do allow food and drinks. My school is all girls, 9-12th, so perhaps that makes a difference? I don’t have rules posted, I just spent some time the first month of school asking those I saw snacking to make sure that everything finds its way into a trash can. It really hasn’t been a problem. I found one drink stain that I asked housekeeping to clean over a break and our carpets are regularly vacuumed. Knock on wood, but I haven’t seen a single bug. Like Elisabeth says, when the materials go home, there’s no telling what’s going on around them. If/when I redesign, I will go with carpet squares as so many have suggested–but for the foreseeable future, snacking and studying is fine with me as long as they don’t ask me to be Carol Brady or Alice cleaning up after them.

    • Oh I can JUST see you in Alice’s apron, vacuum cleaner in one hand, plate of cookies in another, Katie! How has the cleanliness factor (scattered muffins and food wrappers are our biggest offences) been going as the year winds down? Did students stay on a fairly even level of cleanliness/mess?

      • O.k. so five minutes ago I would have said “nothing newsworthy as the year winds down”, but having just gone upstairs to shelve before exams take over (grrrr…), I did find that someone was enjoying some frosted mini wheat cereal last night and apparently they had a spill. Nothing that a quick vacuum won’t take care of. Quite honestly, I am the only librarian in a 3 story building. We have one adult study hall proctor manning the evening hours. There is no way to be everywhere at once, even if we wanted to. So far it’s working for us.

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