Since before dinosaurs roamed the world, coffee has been prohibited in university libraries. I learned during a job interview last month at UC Merced that coffee will be allowed in their new library. They will, in fact, SELL coffee in the library. Will miracles never cease? This is revolutionary!
But should it be? Why don't all university libraries allow and sell coffee?
Most students or faculty, when they study, sip from tea cups or coffee mugs. Nothing could be more conducive to creative thought. If university libraries truly served their clientele, they would have allowed these beverages on the premises ages ago. Go to any Starbucks or Barnes and Noble near a university. What do you find? College students toiling away at their studies. It is more pleasant to study in a cafe than in the campus library. Why? Because the university libraries institute policies that alienate students and faculty. My first year at UCSD, I remember library workers asking to see my travel coffee mug to make sure I had not smuggled any of the forbidden libation into the library sanctuary. Is there a more effective way to drive students away?
Where is it written that libraries must be austere and uninviting? The explanation commonly proferred for the beverage ban is that coffee could damage the books and other library materials. Oh, really? What does a library do? It allows you to check out books. So instead of drinking coffee while you sit in the library, you check out the books, lug them over to Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, and then you read them and spill your coffee on them there. How exactly does this policy protect the books?
There is another excuse that library officials put forth: It would be more expensive to clean the library if people routinely drank coffee in the library. True enough. But it would also increase the value of the service the library provided. The willingness to pay of the average consumer may be inferred by the price students commonly fork over to study in off-campus cafes. If the library sold coffee, it could easily use the revenues to pay for extra cleaning crews, if needed. The "cleaning cost" explanation smells like an excuse, anyway. Coffee is allowed in seminar rooms in departments all across campus. How is it any more difficult to keep a seminar room clean than it is to keep a library clean?
Recently, after many years of resistance, my university, UCSD, began allowing coffee into the library. Hurray! Sanity has prevailed. Or not. This was done begrudgingly, and in a very slimy way. Yes, you may bring coffee into the library now. But you may do so only if you carry it in an "official university mug." They advertise the tacky plastic mug as virtually spill-proof. Baloney! It leaks like a sieve. Put coffee in it, hold it upside, and watch your shoes turn brown. I own a Brookstone mug and a Starbucks mug. Both are spill-proof. You can hold them upside down, shake them, pound them, spin them like batons, and you won't ever spill a drop. Both are superior in every way to the butt-ugly university mug. These, of course, are prohibited.
Imagine if academic departments functioned in the same way. "Yes, Dr. Akerlof, you may bring coffee to the economics colloquium today, but only if you carry it in our official 'economics department' mug. Otherwise, we'll throw you out on your ass." It sounds ridiculous. Petty. Offensive. Orwellian, even. But this is precisely what our library does.
Imagine a private enterprise denying its customers a valued service. Starbucks, say. Imagine they refused to allow you to drink coffee in their stores because you might spill it. Imagine that after years and years, they finally let you drink coffee in the store, but only if you stood over the trash can in case you were too sloppy. What would happen if Starbucks behaved in this manner? They would cease to exist, that's what. They would go under faster than you can say "Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf."
University libraries, of course, don't go under. (Which explains a lot).
In any event, kudos to UC Merced for thinking outside the stacks. They discarded a meaningless tradition in favor of consumer needs and preferences. Common sense prevailed
(But isn't that forbidden on a university campus...?)