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The problem with Green Library

I am not a mathematician, but I’ll give this a shot. In the spirit of efficiency, let me outline the many faults of the current checkout procedure at Green Library.

If every student spends 30 seconds opening their backpacks to be inspected by the desk clerk, that is multiple hours of student time wasted per day. This doesn’t even factor in the time spent checking after those of us that actually use the library for its intended purpose — checking out books. If you have books from Green Library, you must have them all scanned and checked at the desk, adding more wasted time. If we count the people who checkout books and are actively carrying them in and out of Green Library, we can estimate a two-minute checkout time to have them all rescanned. I’ll be conservative and say that a quarter of the students a day have books in their bag (a sad reality perhaps), requiring additional scanning. That doubles the wasted time Green Library alone accounts for. This reasoning may seem absurd, but so is the procedure.

The next aspect of the checkout procedure is that of privacy. No library I’ve ever been to, including archives of former Soviet countries, public libraries around the United States and otherwise, require inspection of the personal belongings I bring into or out of their space. They either ask for it to be placed in a locked bin, or they trust the equipment of electronic scanners to alert the passing of books that haven’t been checked out. Why is Stanford an exception? Why can’t a place situated in the center of technological advancement, with many of its alumni feeding directly into the pool of the next generation of tech leaders and technocrats, use an electronic system that doesn’t infringe on privacy? I don’t know, but I do know that the current system is a royal waste of time.

The checkout system creates an environment that subjects us, the students and patrons, to routine inspections effacing us of our personal privacy. And this isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that the whole thing is so obviously inefficient. If anyone wanted to actually steal a book from Green Library, it would be a joke. A 15-year-old shoplifter could figure out the system in two trips. Put a t-shirt over it inside your backpack; put the book in a side stitched pocket, inside a jacket or behind your belt. If the library was actually concerned with establishing security, it would require a thorough check of bags, but that’s too invasive so the anonymous clerk pokes around and says, “Thanks.”

As someone with a few friends who happen to be librarians, and as someone who works at a library, I’ve learned the first rule of any good library is to not make patrons feel as if they are under surveillance or uncomfortable, and yet that’s exactly what Green Library does because it’s not a good library. Let’s not lose sight, however, of what it all is. It is not an amorphous entity, not Hell House possessed, forcing us through suffering and pain in its masochistic redemption. It’s a group of people making these decisions for us, the students and patrons. Those in power undoubtedly realize the inefficiency of this system, but their purpose is not to catch thieves, it’s to impose power. A seemingly trivial matter of exiting a library becomes a means of surveillance, a means of inspection, the imposition of control of those in power over those who are not and a completely unnecessary hostility created between “us” and “them.” The worst part of it all though is that the whole process is wasteful, insulting and deters people from using the library.

A student body allegedly the “best and brightest” could be using the collective hours wasted in the inspection line at Green to write the next great novel or find an alternative to petroleum. If this was just a matter of an inefficient library being inefficient because it’s underfunded or has little resources or can’t figure it out, I would understand. But this is Stanford, where great things are meant to happen or at least are conducive to happening. It’s not supposed to be a place where you are under suspicion and distrust, subject to inspection by a random clerk disinterestedly looking through your stuff. It’s also not a place where inefficient impositions of power are standard procedure or so I thought.

— Jake Zawlacki, Graduate student at Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies

Contact Jake Zawlacki at jazawlwacki ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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