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An article by Rianne van Melik
1 April 2023, 10:30
Cups of Coffee (Biblotheekblad 2023-4)

"In the modern library you come for coffee, the newspaper and a computer course," NH News headlined in April 2022. That used to be almost unthinkable, the combination of books and coffee. You just might end up with a stain on the pages! Nowadays, it is quite normal to enjoy a latte in the library while reading or chatting.

One of the staff in my own library recently observed that for someone who only drinks tea, she pours a remarkable amount of coffee. Offering coffee is not only an extra service to library customers, but also part of the social programme of many libraries. Think of initiatives such as the Living Room of..., Effe buurten, Koffie met..., Taal, Thee en Koffie, and Kleintje Koffie. Sometimes literally mentioning coffee in the title of such activities indicates that the library offers more than access to books and information. It is a place where people can feel at home; a Douwe Egberts atmosphere in the library.

In her essay The North West London Blues, British writer Zadie Smith pays tribute to the library, one of the last public places not dominated by commerce, or in her own words, "the only thing left on the high street that doesn't want either your soul or your wallet." In similar words, Dutch writer Paulien Cornelisse concludes in de Volkskrant that the library is unique: "It is the only building in public space where you don't have to spend money, nor are you offered religion. Let it sink in: everything else, anything else, costs money or dedication."

How do these two developments relate to each other; does the coffee-drink trend make the library more inclusive or not? In my library, a cup of coffee costs 50 cents, but in many other libraries the options are now more exclusive and therefore more expensive. What target group do you serve if you offer Starbucks coffee, for example, like the central library in Rotterdam? Here, a Caffè Americano quickly costs 5x as much. With the opening of this Starbucks outlet in 2019, the Rotterdams Dagblad interviewed one of the library managers, who expected wandering tourists to walk in more easily now: "It [Starbucks] is an iconic business for many people. That gives us a more international audience." 

Of course, you can also visit the library without spending over three euros on a latte macchiato; the house rules allow you to consume your own food and drink (with a few exceptions). There is also a vending machine where you can get coffee for one euro, although on my last visit it turned out to be defective. Nor is it about the exact price of coffee, but rather the image of accessibility portrayed. What if you are not an international tourist but a job seeker? Using the internet in the library costs €2.50 a day if you don't have a subscription. Neither is going to the toilet free. Thus, the library is a place where you have to spend money anyway.

Understandably, libraries cannot provide all services for free. Moreover, some visitors will greatly appreciate the offer of indoor library cafes and will be able to afford it just fine. But it is important to have an affordable or perhaps even free alternative for those who cannot.

Translated with (free version)
Translation of Dutch column in monthly magazine Bibliotheekblad (2023-4)

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