With free snacks, library preps students for finals
With a cart full of snacks, Jaina Lewis sets off to feed the cramming masses at the Westport Public Library. She pokes her head inside two conference rooms and wheels her way through the teenage corner, doling out treats to students steeped in books. Then she arrives at a row of tables in back.
"They're a very polite group this year," she notes, eyeing two Staples High School juniors who appear lost in their calculators and stacks of notes.
"Snacks?" she asks.
They barely budge.
"They're free..." she adds.
It's final exam week for middle and high school students, time for many teens to reacquaint themselves with the public library. As the librarian for teen services, Lewis hopes to make the students' studying more enjoyable and more productive by passing out free snacks.
So she loops the building a couple times an evening, pushing a cart full of snack packages and juice boxes, which were purchased for just over $100 at BJ's, with money provided by the Friends of the Westport Library, a non-profit group of volunteers. In sweetening up study sessions, Lewis hopes she can entice a few teens to come back to the library more often and take advantage of the other freebies -- such as books, speakers and seminars.
"It's fun because you get to feel like you're 5 again," Lewis says of the snacks, nudging the cart into an elevator and pressing the button for the second floor. "Plus, it's comforting."
The free snack program only began at the library last school year. Yet the number of students coming here during finals week was far greater a few years earlier, Lewis says, when more than 100 students often arrived at once. This presents a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the library wants as many guests as possible. On the other hand, even as the students were generally well-behaved a few years back, their group studying, frequent whispering and occasional behavior lapses could fundamentally alter the ordinarily quiet setting.
"This library just isn't used to that sort of day to day activity," Lewis says from a second-floor balcony, with a sweeping gesture that takes in the stacks of books and lines of tables beneath her. "It's designed more like an airport hangar."
The town's studying options have multiplied. For the past few years, Staples has kept its library open to students during the last two weeks of each semester, from Monday to Thursday, 6 to 9 p.m. Barnes and Noble and Starbucks are also popular studying spots, students at the library said. And then there's always home.
None of which seems to work for Perrin Judd, a Staples 10th grader who was brushing up on molecular electron configurations on Monday afternoon. Sitting with her older sister Erica in one of the library's conference rooms, Judd munched on a Fruit Roll-Up and explained why she frequents the public library.
"My own room is too distracting; Starbucks is too loud; and at school, everyone's around asking, `Oh, can you help me with this?'" she said.
So she comes to the public library early and tries to secure one of the several conference rooms, which offer 90-minute windows of private study.
Like Judd, Lewis has used trial-and-error to refine her own exam-time routine. She first offered students cookies and milk, but the cookies left crumbs and the milk proved unpopular. So she switched to other snacks, learning to avoid things like Skittles and M&Ms, which easily turn into projectiles.
"Now we're picking items that don't crumb as much and that can't easily be thrown," she said. "Or mashed into the carpet."
She's also learned not to set up a table by the front door. Experience shows that doing so tempts hungry adults and parents of small children into asking for food, which is earmarked for students. But it also gives the impression that the items are for sale, which they aren't. So when Lewis found an extra cart in the library's basement, she attached a "Free Study Snacks!" sign to the front and turned it into a wheeling diversionary tool.
Weaving through the second-floor fiction stacks, she spots a half-dozen Staples juniors slumped beneath shelves of Charles Dickens, studying Spanish. Of the group, only Ben Meyers comes to the library outside of finals week (or outside of storm-related power outages, someone adds). He lives about 5 minutes from the library, he explains.
The group met on Sunday for Spanish studying, but they lost an hour by strolling to Oscar's Deli for dinner and Starbucks for desert. On Monday afternoon, with the Spanish test looming on Tuesday, they planned to grab a quick dinner at Matsu Sushi, just down Jesup Road. Told that Lewis's snack cart had rolled by 10 minutes earlier, the group became noticeably upset. They'd organized their own study break and therefore missed her. They found solace in hearing that Lewis planned to swing by again, however. And if studying went slower than planned, they'd be camped beneath David Copperfield all night, or at least until 9 p.m., when the library closes.
"And after that I'll sleep outside, if I have to," said Hannah Bjornson.
For Lewis, the snack giveaway has brought a few lessons about the Westport Library. A Minneapolis native who's worked here for three-and-a-half years, she never knew one important thing about the first-floor's teenage corner. But while introducing herself to a cluster of students over the weekend, someone asked where he might plug in his laptop.
"I found out there's no outlet over there," she said. "So I had to bring them an extension cord."