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More Disturbing Library Trends

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009 | Posted by Ryan Harvey

It seems that the deterioration of the American public library is worse than I had at first feared. At least if I am to use the Beverly Hills Public Library as an example. (Beverly Hills isn’t exactly the best example of any trend in North America, being a bizarre entity that I think J. G. Ballard invented for one of his novels, but in terms of civic decline I think I’m on safe ground using it.)

I recently posted about my discovery that a coffee shop—with fudge included, for some reason known only to “Kelly”—had mysteriously arisen inside the BHPL. I tried to satisfy myself with the knowledge that the library would at least strive to keep the coffee and fudge behind the glass doors of Kelly’s Staining Bean Juice and Contaminating Sugar Sludge, away from the precious volumes of books and helping to keep at bay the armies of paper-munching insects that might like to snack on old copies of Gormenghast.

However, on my last visit to the library, I made some disturbing discoveries. I hadn’t received the full story about the Kelly’s invasion.

The disturbing day started soon after I had sat down in the main reading room of the library, a beautiful room with large windows and classic banker’s lamps. I noticed a few desks away an object that didn’t belong: an empty paper coffee cup. “By Athena!” I thought. “Someone really brought coffee into the library and openly sat there and drank it—and didn’t even throw away the cup!”

But then, from the corner of my vision, I noticed a library patron with a paper cup of coffee sitting beside him on the wood table. It was perched right next to his notebook, in plain sight. A man was violating one of the greatest library taboos in front of everybody. I’m not the sort of person who would get up and ask him to please dispose of the drink, but I certainly wished I were right then. I hoped a librarian would swoop down soon and inform him that food and drink were not allowed in the library. Maybe the librarian would shame him a bit too—quietly, of course.

But then, another man sat down across the table from me… with a transparent plastic glass of iced coffee in his hand!

To paraphrase Goldfinger (the novel, not the film): The first time is happenstance. The second time is coincidence. The third time… the policy must have changed.

When I went to the circulation desk to check out my books, I had to ask the librarian: “Uhm, library policy hasn’t changed, has it? You still can’t bring food or drink inside, right?” Note the negative phrasing—there’s no way this is permitted. Right? “Because I saw a lot of people today with cups of coffee.” A not so subtle hint to enforce the previously mentioned policy which must still be in force.

The librarian shook his head. “No, the policy now is that as long as the liquid is in a covered container of some kind, it’s allowed.” I could hear in his voice that he wasn’t thrilled about this change either. I asked him if he knew why the policy had changed. He answered: “The city told us that we had to be revenue-producing.” Again, I felt his unhappiness; it matched mine. When I asked further about it, he indicated that many of the librarians were displeased—okay, angry is term he actually used—about the change. And then he said the library was also considering lifting the cell phone ban.

The idea that a public library—a free place for information to serve the community—must be “revenue producing” is disturbing enough. That the City of Beverly Hills would choose to produce revenue using an item that destroys books and dirties the library is… well… Dante is going to having to add another circle to his Inferno.

So, what other great taboos of the library will the City of Beverly Hill now think of demolishing? Here are some ideas:

  • Patrons may check out books and not return them, provided they tell the circulation desk at check-out that this is what they plan to do.
  • A checked-out book may be written in, as long as it isn’t with a felt-tip pen.
  • Patrons are to avoid using excessive profanity in their loud conversations.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have brought those up. Somebody may actually institute them.

Our libraries need our help (donate books, donate money) and our patronage more than ever—and this is the best way to keep them from allowing themselves to be destroyed one cup of café mocha and one obnoxious cell phone call at a time.

8 Comments »

  1. Do you think it might be because of California’s economic situation that all this is happening? I can’t speak with authority about Texas, but my local library isn’t even remotely close to doing anything like this as far as I know. Although the university library started selling drinks about eight years ago, with a designated drinking zone.
    I’m sorry that’s happening to your library :( Hopefully they won’t start setting up TVs exclusively plugged in to MTV.

    Comment by Gabe - July 21, 2009 10:02 am

  2. I do imagine that California’s economic woes have something to do with this. I wish wish that the city had found a way to raise money for the library aside from allowing patrons to stain the books. There has to be a better way!

    Cripes, blaring TVs in the library… I hope we don’t get to that.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - July 21, 2009 12:53 pm

  3. Perhaps what we are seeing is the metamorphosis of the library from place of strict, monklike study to one of social, comfortable perusal? Not that I approve. Personally, I limit myself to three profanities and only one mention of body parts in my loud conversations.

    But why is it coffee is the library drink of choice? Is our neurotic attention span so short that we must stimulate ourselves with caffeine just to endure the tedium of reading?

    Comment by bluefish - July 21, 2009 5:27 pm

  4. I think the short answer to the coffee question is (and no offense to this place) Barnes & Noble. Coffee is now associated with books. Then again, what else would you drink with a book?

    Comment by Gabe - July 21, 2009 5:30 pm

  5. Then again, what else would you drink with a book?

    Coke. I was never much of a coffee fan.

    Comment by Ryan Harvey - July 21, 2009 8:11 pm

  6. This is reminiscent of Rome under Nero.

    Comment by Bill Ward - July 21, 2009 9:44 pm

  7. As a librarian, I find myself torn. We don’t like wet, sticky, nasty things around the books. That said, we here in my neck of the woods (I work for a metropolitan library with 17 branches spread out across the county where I live), are finding that our services are being used more and more due to the economic crisis. Yes, we are facing more budget cuts, and being told we need to find other ways to increase our income, but we have a very strict policy in place forbidding anything in the computer rooms and only closed containers in the book area. Also, we tried the coffee shop thing, and it failed miserably, and we had to get rid of it and go back to telling people there was a Starbucks in the hotel across the street and no drinking or eating allowed in our building.

    Comment by keltora - July 30, 2009 2:08 pm

  8. Many libraries are following this trend and I don’t see it as (necessarily) a bad thing. In the libraries I’ve worked in, and in the Barnes & Noble I’ve worked in as well, there was really little to no mess caused by the coffee drinkers. We had more problems with what they did to the books they took home. For the libraries that I’ve encountered it was less about revenue generation than making the library more inviting…important when ensuring that those that pay the tax dollars that keep you open are considering what programs to cut and which ones to protect.

    Comment by dentonwriter - July 30, 2009 7:09 pm


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