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The mock defense of Green Library

Last week, my piece, “The problem with Green Library,” was published on the same day as Green’s rotunda exhibition celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the library. I hope the irony wasn’t lost on you either. For this article, I’d like to look at the mock defenses of the current system of Green Library, and then dismantle each argument to the point of a Monty Python’s Flying Circus level of absurdity.

To start, let’s take some pro-tips from E. Forbes Smiley, the notorious thief convicted of stealing 97 rare maps worth more than $3 million, at various institutions he frequented. Smiley might tell us it’s not difficult to rip out a couple of pages or stuff a book into a backpack in a secure bathroom stall. He might advise trimming a couple pages, fitting them in between a closed binder or folder, or dropping them in an inner pocket of a dapper pinstriped zoot suit.

As much as Smiley’s techniques are cunning (and conniving), it doesn’t take a master thief to take stuff out of Green. And more to the point, Green Library’s system wouldn’t deter a master thief. The irony of it is that the library’s administration thinks it can deter such theft by casually looking through the belongings of every individual exiting the building. Not only does the library stand behind the system, it also stands behind the (possibly?) unintended consequences (see last week’s article). What could the defenses be for this? I have a couple ideas.

  1. Stanford doesn’t have enough money in the budget to implement a state-of-the-art electronic scanning system, like every other library in the cosmos, or more to the point, like most other libraries on Stanford campus. I should have just stopped at, “Stanford doesn’t have enough money…” Moving on.
  2. The current system actually deters theft. I would give this more than three seconds of thought if it weren’t for one thing. I have a backpack with three separate compartments and enough zippers to make an 80s goth punk feel insecure. I can say those three compartments have been checked a total of three times in going to Green Library every day…for the past three months. If one book was snuck out of one of those compartments each time… You do the math.
  3. The final defense is that the physical act of an actual person checking a bag has more authority than two metal scanners. Theoretically, I would agree with this. The physical implication of authority provides a more confrontational experience, but as someone who has worked in the dredges of minimum wage retail, does it matter? Does the idea of a friendly librarian glancing at a bag deter thieves? To the larger point, if someone actually wanted to steal something, would the current system stand a chance in preventing someone? No more than Cal standing to win a football game against us. Any lock made by a human can be picked by a human. If people wanted to steal from Green, they would (Most of us don’t). So why put everyone else through the meaningless process?

As we know, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” And as my dead celebrity crush, Albert Camus reminds us, “The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.” Let’s recalibrate. My intention with this piece, and my previous, is to call for reform. None of this would have even entered my mind if a fellow student and friend hadn’t told me that he wouldn’t go to Green Library for this very — seemingly benign — reason. Upon further investigation with other students (aka the generic armchair complaining sessions students seem to have an exceptional number of), I found an overwhelming majority in agreement that the checkout procedure was a deterrent from using Green Library.

This is terrible. As a lover of books and an active participant in this system of academia, I find it appalling that the very wellspring of the Academy itself, the Library, be regarded in such low esteem and with such frustration. There is no defense. It’s a problem. It needs to be fixed. Not because I’m some punk who wants to stick it to the man, but because libraries should be as open and accessible as possible. The scowling bespectacled stereotype needs to die a horrible painful death, as does the intrusion of privacy and the decadent inefficient waste of everyone’s time. A couple sentences into The Plague, Camus reminds us “the most incorrigible vice [is] that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything.” Ignorance for now, it seems.

— 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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