LAFAYETTE -- For nearly five years, patrons of the Lafayette Library & Learning Center have enjoyed a tasty perk other Contra Costa County library system users haven't -- they got to snack on food and sip coffee and other drinks while hanging out in the library.
But complaints about greasy sandwich wrappers left on tables, computer keyboards coated with taco sauce and other spills and odors -- including those emanating from the simmering mini-Crock-pot one patron is known to regularly plug in -- have prompted city leaders to wrap up this chapter in library history.
As of July 1, the city will prohibit food in the library during regular open hours, and beverages will be allowed only in containers with covered lids. It won't be a total ban, however. The new policy approved April 28 by the city council won't apply to after-hour fundraisers or events in the Arts & Science Discovery Center or the Community Hall, where city officials regularly hold public meetings.
"There will still be cookies allowed for the city council," quipped City Manager Steve Falk at the April 28 meeting inside the library's Community Hall -- moments before a council member popped the tab of his soft drink can.
The decision follows a request from library Manager Vickie Sciacca, building manager Brian Long and library foundation Executive Director Beth Needel to change the food policy following complaints from patrons tired of smells and other food-related problems. The book and periodical collections are also being impacted, according to Sciacca, who said eating and drinking is allowed everywhere in the library except the teen, technology and homework centers and public computers.
"There has been an abuse of privileges by all ages. There are some people that are always respectful, and then there are people that take it to the limit," Sciacca said.
Maia Warren said she hasn't seen many food-related messes in the library's Teen Center, where a sign in the window lets kids know that eating and drinking aren't allowed.
"People are pretty good about cleaning (up)," said Warren, a 14-year-old Lafayette resident who comes to the library every day after school. That's when the library usually fills up with young children, middle-schoolers and teens, like the young boy last week walking in with a bagel and cream cheese and the girl sinking her teeth into a rainbow snow cone while hanging out with friends in the front lobby.
"(Staffers) just usually kick us out anyway if we eat food," Warren said. Another young patron said he often grabs food at the Taco Bell next door and eats it inside the center.
Jessica Fox of Lafayette brings only water or other colorless drinks into the library, lest she leave stains like those she sees on the carpet there. She doesn't think food should be allowed inside.
Still, she supports eating in outside areas. "I wouldn't want to discourage kids from coming in, and I know they need snacks," said Fox, who visits the library three or four days a week.
The city council adopted the liberal food policy when the new library opened in 2009, to compete for visitors with bookstores that offered a "wide variety of media and Internet access and food and beverages," Falk said.
The library is also one of a handful in the county system that houses an on-site cafe; Walnut Creek and Pittsburg both have in-house cafes, and Orinda sells beverages and other goodies at its downstairs Caffe Teatro. But Lafayette is the only one in the county system that allows eating inside the library, Sciacca said.
While county library policy allows people to eat and sip covered beverages in designated areas in libraries that sell edibles, administrators say the host cities are allowed to set their own policies. Still, the county generally doesn't allow food inside the libraries, to keep equipment safe and messes down.
"There could be rodents associated with crumbs where books are," said Kathy Middleton, Acting Deputy County Librarian of Public Services.
Lafayette, which has not had a rodent problem, is planning a "gentle" launch of its new policy, its library manager said.
"It will not be a strict enforcement until we have given the community time to adjust to the new change," Sciacca said.
Contact Jennifer Modenessi at 925-943-8378. Follow her at Twitter.com/jmodenessi