Their Research Is in the Toilet

March 24, 2017

Woe is the library bathroom, long omitted from treatises on design, reflections on patron services and "user comfort," and the imaginations of philanthropists and budget directors.

"Toilets are in our buildings," write Jennifer Poggiali and Stephanie Margolin, librarians at campuses of the City University of New York, in a draft of a forthcoming paper, "but not on our minds."

A 1908 publication on libraries referred to their bathrooms as an inherently "objectionable feature" and a "nuisance." A 1979 library-design guide set a low bar for bathroom aesthetics, advising designers, "You’re not trying to set a mood for the room." A 2011 handbook suggested that library bathrooms should be made as resistant as possible to damage and graffiti "without looking as if the fixtures were ordered straight from a prison-supply catalog."

Should anyone expect more? Libraries have limited budgets, and bathrooms are beside the point — which is to say, the books and study spaces. Also, the rooms’ dimensions are circumscribed by building codes. As for indulgences, donors rarely endow fancy bathroom fixtures. Perhaps the best-known exception is Michael Zinman, who paid for three urinals in a University of Pennsylvania library bathroom, each bearing a message on a circular silver plaque: "The relief you are now experiencing is made possible by a gift from Michael Zinman."

Anyway, who would want to be associated with bathrooms?

Ms. Poggiali is an instructional-technologies librarian at Lehman College, and Ms. Margolin is an instructional-design librarian at Hunter College. They met while organizing a conference on privacy and surveillance. On a subway ride they bonded over a mutual dissatisfaction with the state of their institutions’ bathrooms.

Complaining soon turned into curiosity, which turned into a pair of academic papers — and, now, an 8 a.m. slot at the annual conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries, this week in Baltimore.

It would be Ms. Poggiali's second time presenting at the conference. She’s the taller of the two, with curly, brown hair and an expression that seems caught between sorrow and amusement. Last time she was at the conference, she led a session on acquiring electronic devices. In a phone interview the night before their session, she admitted to being a bit nervous presenting her latest project. True, few researchers had cared to plumb this particular area. But did she really want bathrooms to be her calling card?

“I'm going up for tenure in the fall, and I think that the top lines in two sections of my CV are going to be jokey titles about bathroom research.”
"I’m going up for tenure in the fall," she explained, "and I think that the top lines in two sections of my CV are going to be jokey titles about bathroom research."

Not that the papers themselves are jokey. They acknowledge the history of public bathrooms as vectors of racism and classism throughout history, facilities that have recently re-emerged as a political battleground in the struggle against transphobia. Bathrooms, they note, offer a lens into how a community apportions dignity to its members.

But the CUNY librarians also recognize that, worthy though they are of serious study, bathrooms are inseparable from what makes them the fountainhead of humor and shame.

"We’re talking about something that’s kind of taboo, and embarrassing, and funny," said Ms. Poggiali. "But once you surpass that taboo, all that stuff you’ve been holding in …"

She caught herself, and both women burst into laughter.

Because of poop.

On Thursday I met Ms. Poggiali and Ms. Margolin at 7:30 a.m. in a room on the third floor of the Baltimore Convention Center. The daily schedule was listed on a screen outside the door: "Accreditation in the Smaller Community College Library," followed by "Web Archiving for Librarians" and a session about predatory publishers.

But first: "Leading From the Library Loo."

On the way there, I had visited the men’s room and, after checking under the closed stall doors for shoes, snapped a few pictures. Before their session, I asked the scholars for a quick analysis.

“There's toilet-seat covers. That's always nice.”
"There’s toilet-seat covers. That’s always nice," said Ms. Margolin, noticing the sheaf of U-shaped tissues above the toilet.

The stalls have double-barreled toilet-paper dispensers. Also nice.

The toilet has an orphaned length of clean tissue floating in the bowl. Forgivable.

The sinks have a shelf large enough to keep your phone dry, but not much else. OK.

The hand-dryer is a Dyson Airblade. How aristocratic!

Verdict? This was a nice bathroom. Nicer than some of the library bathrooms the pair visited last fall on a tour of 15 New York City campuses. That’s where they did field research for "Leading From the Library Loo."

Armed with checklists — inspired in part by a California group called Pissar (People in Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms) — they counted sinks and stalls, assessed lighting and signage, noted the presence or absence of door locks, sanitary bins, and air fresheners.

They took photographs: of an exceptionally narrow passageway between a wall and a bank of stalls; of a sign bolted to a defunct sanitary-napkin dispenser announcing that those products are now available at the bookstore; of a mysterious dark patch on the wall behind a flusher. (One theory: shoe grime from foot-flushing.) In a posed shot, Ms. Poggiali peers contemplatively into a toilet bowl.

Most of the bathrooms the researchers visited seemed adequately kept, though a few were "quite disgusting." Some seemed overdue for work orders to replace peeling toilet seats and old graffiti. ("Toilet Tour 2012," read one message etched into a mirror by a fellow-traveler.)

“While every library seems to be doing something to make their bathrooms usable and hospitable, none are yet doing everything they might.”
"While every library seems to be doing something to make their bathrooms usable and hospitable," they concluded, "none are yet doing everything they might."

Yes, there is work to be done — not just by those who maintain campus bathrooms, but also by those who study them.

In their paper, which is scheduled to appear in the Journal of Library Administration, Ms. Poggiali and Ms. Margolin reflect on questions that future studies might answer. Students often boast, or lament, that they "live" in the library. Naturally, ethnographic questions abound.

"The authors wonder what students do when they need to use the restroom while working at a coveted computer or in a remote location in the library," they wrote. "Do they leave their belongings behind to maintain their claim on the space, risking theft in the process? Do they carry books, calculators, coats, and other supplies into tiny bathroom stalls? After gathering all these items, are they more likely to leave the library after their restroom break? Will they curtail drinking or eating while at the library, so they can limit trips to the restroom as much as possible?"

"Close your eyes, and imagine your student-facing bathrooms," intoned Ms. Margolin in the manner of a yoga instructor.

An audience of about 50 librarians obliged, their eyelashes flickering behind dark-rimmed glasses. Almost all of them were wearing some kind of sweater.

"Smell the smells, see the sights," said Ms. Margolin. "Do everything you can to picture and be immersed in your student bathroom."

Seventy-two fluorescent lights hummed in the high ceiling.

"OK, great," she said. "Now, think of one word that best describes that student bathroom."

She instructed the audience members to submit their words via text. At the end of the presentation, the presenters projected the results on a screen next to the stage in a word cloud.

Floating at the center, in large font: "Gross." "Disgusting." "Old." "Inadequate."

Pooling at the edges: "Clean." "Popular." "Pink." "Formica." "Terrifying." "Yikes."