Topic: University Libraries

March 11, 2007

<b>Dean of University Libraries Arthur Hafner and Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora enjoy coffee and conversation at the official grand opening of the Bookmark Cafe in Bracken Library March 7. Gora called the operation - the first for dining services outside of a residence hall - an important step toward realizing the university~~~s strategic goal of improving the quality of life on campus.</b>
Cindy Miller still remembers when sneaking a can of Coke up to the fourth floor of Ball State's Bracken Library was an accomplishment, a private little victory and personal thrill for the then-Ball State undergraduate and some of her similarly daring classmates in the mid-1980s.

Two decades later, sitting in the library's inviting new Bookmark Cafe and testing the coffee flavor of the day, she has to laugh.

"In some ways, I'm kind of surprised we did it," confides the 1988 alumna who now works for Ball State housing and dining as coordinator of communications, publications, research and student retention. "The concept all the time growing up in school was books and liquid should never be acquainted. The signs were always right there, 'NO food or drink in the library.' It's funny how things change."

And funnier yet, perhaps, that library administrators actually asked for the break from tradition.

According to Jon Lewis, director of dining services, after surveying students and other "clients" of the library about their wants for the campus hub and weighing certain strategic goals of the university, Dean of University Libraries Arthur Hafner and his colleagues decided there was a possible higher use for the previously ill-defined and rarely-used lounge area tucked into the southeast corner of the library's main floor. Reconfigured in pleasing colors under new lighting and sporting two large video displays, the space now beckons patrons with a broad selection of pastries, coffee, other refreshments and a light lunch menu.

"It's interesting that there is still that full range of librarians out there looking at something like this and feeling, 'Well, if you absolutely have to,'" remarks Lewis. "On the other hand, some of the buzz words around here these days are things like 'building communities' and 'vitality.' President Gora talks about creating a more 'vibrant' campus environment, for example.

"I think in this case you also have a dean who is very forward-looking, who's interested in remaking the library, at least partly, as an exciting new 'destination' on campus."

At the cafe's official opening March 7, Hafner personally extended the invitation. "Come and have breakfast," he urged. "Come and have lunch, or come have dinner. But, most important, come and visit the library. We really believe it is the most important place of learning on campus outside of the classroom."

So far (cash registers have been ringing in the cafe since Jan. 8), the formula seems to be working. Liz Poore, assistant director of dining operations, reports cafe visitor feedback reflecting "a lot more satisfied people, students and faculty." Meanwhile, Lewis says that in just a few weeks business at the Bookmark has come on well. So well, in fact, that dining services already has decided to keep the new eatery open through the summer months.

When student numbers on campus dwindle after spring graduation each May, the university routinely shuts down or reduces certain parts of dining operations, Lewis says. "When we first looked at it, we thought we'd probably do that with the library, too," he said. "But, with some of the traffic we've experienced and other indications that many of the people using that new location are likely to be people who'll continue to use it during the summer — being largely administration, faculty and staff members — we've opted to keep it going."

Competition Points

With the opening of the Bookmark Cafe, says Poore, Ball State solidifies a "very definite trend" in respect to the appearance of such meeting spaces in collegiate libraries. Or, in the public college and university ones, anyway.

Although Indiana University-Bloomington, Indiana State University (Terre Haute) and the University of Southern Indiana (Evansville) each have opened library coffee shops in the past two years, DePauw University in Greencastle may be the only one of the Hoosier state's 31 private colleges to have a full-service dining facility in the library, though several do offer coffee kiosks.

Elsewhere, including the likes of Notre Dame in South Bend and nearby Earlham College in Richmond, consumables in the library remain strictly verboten. Lewis, however, predicts that will change. He anticipates the day very soon when college libraries without integrated areas for — in President Gora's words — "relaxing, enjoying and re-energizing" will be the exception to the rule, to the detriment of those institutions that fail to wake up to the realities of a new marketplace.

"They're going to get left behind," Lewis says, adding that in the recruitment of prospective students today places like the Bookmark Cafe have become very real competition points among colleges.

Although, adds Poore, the interest being served has moved well past the original rationale frequently cited for augmenting campus libraries with such amenities: that students of the "entitlement generation," raised with Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc., expect to be able to drink coffee or munch a muffin while also occasionally perusing the book stacks.

Already identified as the "most narcissistic" and self-centered group of college-age students in history (, it turns out a fair share of today's college-bound teens may have even narrower appetites.

"We have studies that show a lot of today's students won't walk more than two blocks for food if they don't have to," Poore says, explaining in part why dining services persevered with developing the modest 1,000-square-foot Bookmark Cafe for almost two years when the location is — almost literally — just across the street from the university's popular, 400-seat food court in the Atrium of the Art and Journalism Building.

"Others can accuse them of being self-centered; I don't know about that," says Poore. "But, I think we can say they're very 'location-centered,' meaning that wherever they are and whatever they're doing at a particular moment, they don't want to go far or be away for very long, especially if it's just to get something to eat or drink."

So for dining services at Ball State, Poore says, opening the Bookmark Cafe was an issue nearly as much about geography (the coffee spot in the library is the first "non-branded" campus dining operation located outside of a residence hall or complex) as it was answering the desires of the library dean. Though "it sure is nice when you end up with this kind of 'win-win' situation," she confesses.

Back inside the cafe, meanwhile, Cindy Miller is still amused.

"It's almost ironic," she says. "Back when I was a student, a lot of the talk about 'community-building' was about 'getting out there.' Now, more and more, we give students good reasons to not even leave places like the library, and it's that not giving them an excuse to leave that actually allows us also to start building new communities in fresh and often unexpected places."

It's funny how things change.

By Kevin Burke, Director of University Communications