Library theft rises during finals week

Two unattended bags sit on a table in the Undergraduate Library on Tuesday. Theft is an ongoing problem in University libraries. Erica Magda

Two unattended bags sit on a table in the Undergraduate Library on Tuesday. Theft is an ongoing problem in University libraries. Erica Magda

By Eric Anderson

The Undergraduate Library’s lost and found drawer rings when students call their lost phones.

“We have an amazing number of things in our lost and found,” said Lisa Hinchliffe, head librarian at the Undergraduate Library. “In any given week have multiple iPods, cell phones, Blackberrys.”

During the weeks before and during finals, the students whose valuables are secured in the lost and found are the lucky ones. Others are victim to a country-wide spike in theft at academic libraries that correlates with final examinations, she said.

As more patrons frequent the University’s libraries, there is an annual increase in theft, Hinchliffe said. She believes two factors cause the spike.

“One is we’re getting to book buy-back time, so textbooks become valuable,” she said. “The second has to do with the general stress level of undergraduate students as they get towards finals. Sometimes in their stressed state, they’re a little distracted.”

During finals week the library hosts between 700-800 people at any given time.

Hinchliffe said that the heightened stress and the crowded library during finals time could coax students into assuming that their unattended belongings will be fine.

“Honestly, (theft is) almost a non-problem most of the year,” she said.

In leaving their valuables unattended, students often make themselves targets for theft.

But anti-theft measures are confounded by the difficulty of determining whose backpack is whose.

“You see somebody picking up a backpack,” Hinchliffe said. “Is it their backpack or not?”

The library is open to the public and there is no identifying of people who enter. Security guards are also trained to ensure library patron order, not launch investigations.

“Most stuff we find sitting around, someone’s like, ‘Oh I’m just going to run and get a coffee, run to the bathroom,'” she said. “Take your stuff with you.”

Bill Mischo, head of the Grainger Engineering Library Information Center, said that come finals week, Grainger experiences similar theft patterns.

“That’s a theft problem, but it’s also a lack of judgment on the part of the students,” Mischo said. “I wouldn’t characterize (the theft problem) as ‘theft.’ I would almost characterize it as give-aways.”

Mischo said students have left their backpacks at Grainger and gone to lunch or class.

“One of the students asked a stranger to watch their computer while they left for a short time,” Mischo said. “When they came back, well, they asked the wrong guy.”

Grainger is a high-traffic library frequented by 1.4 million patrons per year, he said.

Mischo uses announcements to urge people not to leave their belongings unattended. And following a suggestion from the College of Engineering student advisory group, they have recently started offering a laptop lock checkout.

Within the past week, Grainger officials have spoken to Lt. Skip Frost, who indicated that theft all around campus picks up this time of year.

While Grainger staffs an active-duty policeman during the year, Mischo added, “We have special arrangements with the campus police during the very busy times of finals week.”

He declined to elaborate as to what the special arrangements entail.

As recently as Thursday, Grainger is actively investigating the use of security cameras.

Theft usually is the result of an organized band of individuals that Mischo called a “theft ring.”

“Several times, we have made arrests in Grainger of those types of individuals,” he said.

Both Hinchliffe and Mischo emphasized that the student must be responsible for the security of materials.

“We take (theft) very seriously,” Hinchliffe said. “But on the other hand, (the library) is not a jail.”