It’s not just about the rules…

Cassoulet

At lunchtime today I was at my desk eating a very nice bold cassoulet soup from EAT reading e-mails from the various mailing lists I subscribe to. There was an interesting discussion on one of the lists about how different colleges deal with food and drink in their libraries.

I know from experience and walking around that most staff eat their lunches in their workrooms. I also know when writing or working that I quite like having a cup of coffee or a cake (or two). What this tells us is that most people may want to at some point eat or drink while they work and write. It is not too difficult to understand why learners may want to eat and drink as they study. Of course you may not always be able to accommodate eating and drinking; not everyone likes the smell of food, there is the issue of rubbish and there may be an overarching policy that says no food or drink in learning areas. So it may not be that easy to allow food and drink and that rule has to be in place.

Even if there are rules, these are often ignored so as a result the library staff are spending too much time “policing” the library rather than helping learners. Another strategy is to attempt to change behaviour by putting up signs, but experience says that doesn’t work.

One way that I have been looking at this problem, is by asking why is it a problem in the first place. Rather than ask how to stop students eating and drinking in the library, ask why are they eating and drinking in the first place?

Most colleges are providing some kind of area for eating (where do they buy the food from), why aren’t they staying in those areas to eat or drink, what’s making them move from those areas to the library.

On one campus of my current college, the eating establishments only provide food in takeaway containers, partly I guess to save on washing up and partly I guess to encourage students not to stay (as the spaces are quite small). So guess where the learners go when it is cold (as it is today) a nice warm place, the library. On another campus they use proper “china” and the library doesn’t have the same issue with food and drink. Sometimes the issue is outside the control of the Library and a more holistic approach needs to be thought through.

Conversely why aren’t they using the eating spaces for learning, why do they feel they need to move from the canteen to the library? Why not turn the canteens into libraries? Make them environments for learning.

When I was at my last College our (final) policy was to allow bottled drinks only. We had NO signs about food or drink and to be honest it wasn’t really a problem. I remember when we merged with another college, their library was full of “no food” signs and the library was full of half-eaten food. By changing the culture and the respect that the learners had for the environment, the food issue became a non-issue. The main way it became a non-issue was the respect the students had for the space and the staff. Build relationships with the learners and most issues such as rubbish disappear. I also ensured that the team went around and picked up any rubbish, regardless of the fact that there were bins about. The key was ensuring the environment was tidy and nice, not about getting the students to throw away their rubbish. If the learners see a nice environment they generally like to keep it that way.

Of course there will always be exceptions, but I see food and drink in libraries is more about external factors and respect than just what happens in the library and signs.

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