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.