Libations in the library

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by Anne Ford, courtesy of American Libraries

Sipping in the stacks. Boozing amid the books. Whatever you call it, libraries and Friends groups are doing it: serving alcohol after hours, usually as part of a fundraiser, and usually with great success.

The idea of alcohol at a library-sponsored event may strike some as unusual. But supporters say that serving alcohol increases event attendance, particularly among younger adults, and cultivates a public image of the library as a hip, up-to-date social setting.

“People are used to relaxing with a beer or a glass of wine,” says Marcy James, programming coordinator for Jefferson County (Colo.) Public Library (JCPL). “When was the last time you went to a big fundraiser or a wedding without alcohol? I think people see libraries as a place to take your child for storytime, which is wonderful, but not as a place to kick back with other adults. If we’re going to change that view, I think alcohol is part of that.”

Last fall, the Jefferson County Library Foundation hosted a six-week program titled “Stouts and Stories, Ales and Tales.” Because county regulations prohibit alcohol from being served within the library itself, the program’s kickoff fundraiser took place at a local event venue. But that didn’t deter about 150 attendees from paying $15–$25 to sample craft beer from local brewers, play games such as giant beer pong, enjoy live music and a photo booth, sample food-truck fare, and listen to informative talks about the brewing process. Participants also received “beer tour passports” that could be stamped at local breweries in the weeks following the kickoff event and used to access discounts and prizes.

For Cindy Matthews, the library’s promotions and marketing manager, the event was not just about attracting new patrons to the library or even raising money, but also about increasing accessibility. “Colorado hosts the Great American Beer Festival, which brings in thousands of people who pay $85 and up to learn about beer. Not everyone can afford to attend a program like that,” she says. “With this kind of program, we’re able to make it accessible to the community.”

The library did hear from at least one patron who expressed disappointment in the foundation’s decision to serve alcohol. Still, “I’d say the response was overwhelmingly positive,” James says. “It attracted a little bit of news and a different patron base. It was really nice on social media, too; we had 26-year-old guys commenting.”

Intoxicating concerns

Whenever alcohol is served, worries around overserving—that is, the possibility of a patron becoming inebriated—will arise. So far, that hasn’t been an issue at the events she’s overseen, says Leia Droll, executive director of development at North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh. The libraries’ Friends group holds regular onsite programs called Library Libations, at which members enjoy hors d’oeuvres and alcoholic beverages while learning more about the library’s offerings.

“We hire professional bartenders. It’s not like people are serving themselves,” she points out. “Very few attendees drink a lot. We’ve never had anything go wrong.” It helps that, per university regulations, only beer and wine (no hard liquor) are served. It may also help that students are not permitted at the events.

Still, the notion of someone wandering through a library while brandishing a glass of Chianti or Cabernet may inspire mental images of wine-soaked books or stained carpeting. But Droll says a few commonsense precautions have warded off those issues. “Our staff is pretty careful,” she says, “and we don’t let people touch anything that’s valuable or rare. They typically say, ‘If you come to this particular area, you put down your drink,’ and we have staff and volunteers monitoring that.’”

In her view, all the regulations and precautions have been worth it: Serving alcohol has helped attract many younger alumni to the Friends group. “It’s just had a really incredible reach,” Droll says of the program, which typically sells out. “One of the things we’ve heard is: ‘It’s so great to see young people and new faces here.’”

Limiting the liquor

Worthington (Ohio) Libraries has seen similar success with its Friends’ annual Books and Brews fundraiser. Now in its fourth year, the evening event attracts about 225 patrons ages 21 and up, who pay $35–$45 for samples from nearby breweries, food donated by local restaurants, a silent auction, a jazz combo, and a trivia contest. The first time it was held, recalls Director of Community Engagement Lisa Fuller, one of her colleagues came up to her and said, “Look, Lisa! Young people in the library!”

Like Droll, Fuller has not encountered any instances of intoxication at the event. “It’s not as if you have an unlimited supply of alcohol available,” she points out. “You’re not even getting a full beer from any one brewery.” And if someone does become impaired, well, “it’s a neighborhood event; a lot of people walk here,” she says. “Nobody has to worry about driving home.”

At least part of the fundraiser’s popularity, she adds, stems from the delight that comes from interacting with a familiar environment in an unusual way: “What we’ve heard is that it’s really fun to be in the library after hours. I think there’s an appreciation of the disconnect: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m having a beer in the library.’ A couple people have said, ‘If only we could check out books at the same time!’”

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