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Starbucks on Tap at VCU Library

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At Cabell, you can't miss the 50-seat café — it's right near the main entrance. Why Starbucks? VCU officials held a blind taste test that attracted more than 500 students. Starbucks won out.

More than two years ago, the VCU libraries landed state money for their first major reconstruction in more than 30 years, and John Ulmschneider, VCU Libraries executive director, and his colleagues thought of putting in a coffee bar. "We wanted to create a place where students and faculty could mix and work easily together in a way that no place on campus can do," Ulmschneider says.

The tab for the coffee shop came to $40,000. Profits will be split between VCU libraries and university's dining services.

Of the 37 librarians on-staff, Ulmschneider says, "I think that most were in favor. Of course, with any change there is some opposition."

In the past few years, a growing number of college libraries nationwide — the University of Virginia's Alderman Library among them — have shucked their no-food ban and set up coffee shops on-site. "We're not trailblazing," says Sarah Watstein, director of academic user services at VCU Libraries.

Some see the introduction of coffee bars as an attempt to lure students away from Barnes & Noble and dorm rooms hooked up to the Internet.

But Ulmschneider says a lack of patrons was never the issue. "It's really not that kind of approach," says Ulmschneider. "It is an effort to enhance the academic environment."

In the past four years there's been wide discussion in the library profession about how to manage this kind of new environment. Some preservation experts have said that lifting the food ban puts collections in jeopardy and attracts bugs that bore through books.

Ulmschneider says he isn't worried that any of the 1.7 million books and other volumes in the libraries will be hurt. "No increase in bugs … that we can tell," he says.

Meanwhile, one by one, the "no food and drink" signs posted around the library are coming down. Still, Ulmschneider says, "the library buildings are a place for academic pursuit — they're not a cafeteria. … If you turn it into a cafeteria, all those benefits will be lost." — Lisa Singh

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