Life Lessons from the Library: Stealing is Bad, But How We Respond May Be the Real Point

Usually this does not happen so soon in the semester, but it always does happen. Someone tears out chapters of a reserve textbook. One person’s unwillingness to wait in line at the copier, pay 10 cents a page for copies, or simply take a hour to read the assignment in the library means that all the other students in that class will now not have access to the materials they need. While I can often sympathize with students in almost all situations, this is one academic crime that makes me furious.

Textbooks are expensive and can cause a real financial burden for students. Faculty and staff members recognize this and go out of their way to provide the library with reserve texts so that they they keep up with their readings and assignments until their financial aid checks come in or they can find cheaper versions online. This truly is a gift for students. And the fact that a small number of students can be so thoughtless and selfish really upsets me. No, upset is too mild a word. It makes me angry enough to spit as we like to say in Alabama.

But then we have to decide how to respond. I need to point out here that our system doesn’t display a history of users, so by the time we find out about it, the chance of discovering the actual culprit is next to zero.For some of us (and I have to admit that I am one of them), the first response is to do something draconian. We want to take the entire book off reserve and announce publicly that SOMEONE (implication someone evil and selfish) ruined it for everyone else by ripping out several chapters. Then one of  the staff with a kinder and gentler soul mentions that we are simply punishing everyone for the sins of one. And then we calm down and look for other ways, none of them totally satifactory for those who desire punishment but usually somewhat effective.

My experience with library materials reminds me of the times I overreact in the real world as well. It is so easy to take such things personally. I have to remind myself that most actions have nothing to do with me. The person who ripped out fifty pages of a textbook didn’t do so with the intention of making the Jolly Librarian miserable. In fact, the person probably didn’t think of anyone but himself. And that’s true for many things. The woman in the SUV didn’t say to herself, “Ah, a curly headed woman in a Hyundai. I hate her. I’m going to pull out in front of her.” The truth is that most people rarely think of us at all when making decisions, no matter how personal we want to make things.

Bad things do happen. And there are those who have the right and ability to punish. But there are many more times when we are not in a position to punish, and to spend time ranting against the unfairness of it all makes little sense. Instead isn’t more logical just to take as many precautions as possible but realize you can never fully protect yourself from those who want to take advantage of the system? And that concentrating on the few malefactors takes the focus off the many, many good people we meet each day. And life is too short to do that.


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