Stop Spilling Your Fried Rice & Other Library Concerns

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

My first time was extremely nerve-wracking.

Sure, I’d seen plenty of other people do it, but never myself. I always thought of myself as innocent, pure, chaste. But they do say college is a time for firsts, right? “Go for it,” a ravenous voice inside whispered. “Everybody else is doing it too.” I braved myself. Slowly, I entered.

Instead of having a librarian scream in my face, I safely sat down next to my Econ study group on a comfy McCabe sofa with my buffalo chicken wrap. Glancing around, I realized that nobody was giving me weird, disapproving looks. Was my brazen act of bringing food into the library going unpunished?  Evidently, yes.

Here at Swarthmore, food in libraries is not only allowed, but encouraged. For example, after 10 PM, McCabe serves cookies and coffee. Peggy Seiden, Swarthmore’s resident Library Director, argues that food and studying go hand-in-hand. “Food is a great way for students to nourish themselves while studying. The worst case scenario is that the reek of food lingers on the carrels for a while, but Swarthmore students are generally very respectful of the library,” Seiden claims.

On each floor of McCabe, trashcans are strategically placed to allow for facile disposal of recyclables or waste. But ever since trashcans were removed from group study rooms, McCabe faced a minor issue with trash. Seiden says film screening rooms sometimes has trashed stuffed between the sofa cushions. Apparently, walking twenty feet out of a room proves to be a daunting task for some Swatties. While it is true that EVS’s job is to tidy our campus, it is extraneous labor for the EVS staff to clean up after the messes for which we are responsible.

No wonder why some librarians, such as Science Librarian Meg Spencer of Cornell Library, dislike the idea of students bringing food into the libraries. “Once the decisions to allow food in the libraries was made, there was no turning back,” Spencer recalls. The disparity in the Seiden and Spencer’s stance of library food policy stems primarily from the fact that Cornell has a coffee bar right next to it.

“Students come in during the lunch rush with sushi and fried rice and they don’t know how to eat fried rice with chopsticks! So they spill the rice on the desks,” Spencer explains. The problem has only been growing worse over the past few years. To combat this, Spencer requested that the nighttime housekeeping staff to come in and clean up Cornell’s desks after the lunch rush.

Spencer points out, “My friends and colleagues who run libraries are surprised that we even allow food in our libraries.” Many schools, from large public universities like UC Berkeley to smaller ones like Oberlin, prohibit food in library spaces. Though now a lost battle, Spencer was, and still is, an advocate for a “no-food-in-library” policy.

I reflected on the ramifications of my bringing food into the library. Most nights, I take a 10 PM trip to Essie’s to buy four Chobanis, all of which I down quietly in my corner of the Cornell basement. Then, I throw my containers into a trashcan, which is usually already overflowing with other food waste. I also notice students throwing compostable and recyclables into regular trash cans along with the food waste. Naturally, one would expect this kind of buildup if recycling and composting bins are not immediately available. As of now, bringing food into the library raises all sorts of problems and questions we should be asking ourselves.

Is it worth eating your black bean burger in Cornell if it means ants and rodents may accompany your studying experience? Should you eat fries if your oily hands are flipping through reference books? And can you take the mere seconds to differentiate between the different trash bins (compost, recycling, waste)? This conversation may seem tough, and even inconsequential, to start, as having food while studying does ameliorate the grueling process.

But I argue that we do need to sort this problem out: we are complacent to the fact that our indolence may be burdensome on other students, staff workers, and the environment. Librarians like Spencer should not be overly concerned about the upkeep of the library; her job description likely doesn’t include “housekeeping” or “babysitting.” Additionally, if our community is not willing to change the status quo on a problem that’s easily fixed, what does this imply for other problems surrounding our school? So, I present to you my proposal for a two-pronged approach to solving the food waste problem.

First, we must push the administration to refurbish the libraries. With Swarthmore’s grandiose plan to expand the student population to 2,000 members, the salient issue of limited chairs and space in libraries must not be ignored. This will also lead to an increased number of Margaret Kuo takeout boxes quickly filling up Cornell’s mini-trash cans. Instead, larger trash cans with round openings are much more ideal for food disposal. Especially with the renovations coming to Cornell and McCabe–including a possible café attached to McCabe–new trash cans should be considered, in addition to recycling containers.

Another issue with library eating is composting. While cute, McCabe’s little composting station stands alone in its corner: not many students are willing to descend two floors to drop off a banana peel. However, if there were composting stations on each floor, it would be hard for the Green Advisors to maintain these buckets. Spencer has a simple solution: “Students should just get out of the library and compost in the science center. It’s like a break from studying.”

The second part of my solution goes two ways. We are the impetus to create and enforce a culture in which aware students throw away their trash into the correct trash bins and clean up after their messes. If done correctly, this self-policing culture will be conducive to creating a better school environment for all. Our failure to do so leaves only one other foreseeable alternative: banning food from libraries altogether.

I do understand that it is hypocritical for me to dump empty yogurt cans in the Sigma Xi room all the while condemning other Swatties for the same actions in The Daily Gazette. Little by little, I am trying to change my own habits, starting simply by taking the time to learn where to throw away my trash when I’m in Cornell.  My only hope is that students don’t write this off as a non-issue—if no momentum can be garnered to change a problem affecting members in our community, what gives us the right to advertise Swarthmore as the school with a commitment to social responsibility?


  1. Leon,
    The size and shape of garbage cans does not determine Swarthmore’s ability to advertise its commitment to social responsibility. While I laud your underlying premise, clean up after yourself, your presentation is smug, pretentious and, dare I say, very Swattie. Having moved on to the real world, where I can eat pretty much wherever I please, let me tell you that spilled rice isn’t that big of a deal. Instead this article, your time may have been better spent posting a sign or two asking people to clean up after themselves. But I suppose you wouldn’t have been able to tell your friends that you made a big ole difference.

    • Valued Alumni,
      You make many valid points. Instead of writing an article that chastises the ramifications of my own actions on the community and environment, I should have been posting passive aggressive signs around campus guilt-tripping other Swatties. I’m glad the real world has dulled your ability to care about minute issues, but my article was geared towards the Swarthmore community. Because Swarthmore is quite small, problems that may be inconsequential to you can have noticeable effects in our community.
      And the underlying premise of my article is not pretentious. One morning, I was sitting in Cornell and I heard the librarians and EVS staff discussing this issue, so I decided to write something to let the Swarthmore community know. I consider myself more of a messenger who, to this day, does not know in which bin straws go, not a saint who descended from high above to educate amoral Swatties.
      Your last sentence is especially endearing. Writing an article for the DG is not the best medium for me to advocate for a problem while simultaneously drawing copious attention to myself. Yelling at people behind a table as they enter Sharples would be much more effective. Also, if you think it’s “Swattie”-like just to write an 1000 word article just to receive a circlejerk, I have doubts that you and I attended the same Swarthmore.

  2. Leon, as another alum I’ll put forth that I found your concern to the specifics of Swarthmore culture and its various problems a wonderful read. In the real world too, it is the smallest details of culture and society that I claim are the most interesting. Thanks!

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