Sunday, November 30, 2008

Library snacking reflects society

When I returned to work in the mid-1980s, the big discussion, at least at OSU and I assume other academic libraries, was food in the libraries. It was a huge maintenance problem and the trash was a problem both for staff and users. I don't recall much alarm then about health, obesity, and the greening of everything. So we pretty much went to a "no food and drink" policy as a preservation plan (of materials and staff) which soon was chipped away first in Health Sciences, as I recall. You just don't tell doctors, even those in training, where they can eat, drink or sleep. So then came rules about permanent holders, lids, sippy cups, etc. There was a snack machine in the room next door to the Veterinary Library, which the librarian before me raged about (he had other problems, including borrowing money from faculty and not paying it back, and not showing up for work--but oh, he watched that machine!). I've lost track of what the current plan is--the main library at OSU has been closed for renovation for several years. My library was torn down and replaced and I've only been in it once, although I planned it.

Libraries, like churches, give in to society's cultural norms and to common business practices, and are not the moral and ethical touchstones they aspire to be. So now in the 21st century library cafes are becoming popular. Even my local public library has tried to push that one, although you can walk across the street to a shopping center and get a nice cup of coffee served to you. The book, The Survey of Library Cafes, surveyed the current trend (40+ libraries, mostly public), and although I haven't read it, here are some of the highlights:
    The study presents data from a survey of more than 40 academic and public libraries. The libraries provide data about their library cafes and other food service operations, such as vending machines. The report has more than 100 tables of data exploring a broad range of issues related to library cafes, such as their finances, impact on patron traffic, staffing and maintenance. Data is broken out for academic and public libraries, and by size of library, for easier benchmarking.

    Some of the findings of the report are that:

    - Snacks account for nearly 71% of the income of library cafes, though lunch adds a not at all negligible 20.83% of total revenue and breakfast chips in with another 8.33%, according to The Survey of Library Cafes.

    - Salads in this era of health consciousness chipped in only a mean of 4.5% of sales, more in the public than college libraries. All salad sales came from the larger libraries, those with more than 600,000 annual patrons.

    - The average price of a cup of coffee in the library cafes was $1.49, perhaps reflecting the Starbuck-ization of the library café. This figure also takes into account those libraries that gave their coffee away.

    - More than 40% of the library cafes offered outdoor eating. Close to 65% of the libraries in the sample had vending machines, with an average of only about three vending machines per library.
So, libraries contribute to obesity on the one hand, then buy books on dieting and alarmist titles about an obese population on the other. I'd have to look at it to see if these cafes are subbed out to private contractors or they use library-hired staff, but either way, the building is paid for by you, the tax payer, and it competes with your business community which also has to pay taxes to support the library. Nice job if you can get it.

It looks terribly expensive for the compiled data--55 pages and 80 euros! I'm wondering if authors' intention is to provide library directors, like ours, data to convince their board and voters that they need the next bond issue to open a cafe, yada, yada:
    "This report gives extensive data on library cafe sales volume, best selling products, impact on library maintenance costs, reasons for starting a cafe, affect on library traffic and many other issues regarding the decision to start and manage a library cafe."

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