Mostly, people don’t take stuff. Mostly.

So. Times are bad. Crime is up.

There have been, to my knowledge, five laptops stolen out of the library this semester. All of those were reported as having been left unattended. It is very easy to pick up a laptop, shove it in a backpack and walk out the door. The staff have no way of stopping anyone—we don’t check everybody’s bags, and if we did, we wouldn’t know who had their own laptop, who had borrowed a friend’s with permission, and who was a thief.

You may be asking yourself, Why would someone walk away from a laptop lying on a desk? Well, it’s a fair question. Some of the reported incidents have involved bathroom breaks (or so was the claim); I have talked to people who seemed to think that it was tremendously inconvenient to gather up their things and shlep them over to the bathroom (or to one of our lockers, which require a quarter for deposit). I actually understand this. Most of the time that somebody walks away from their stuff, they walk back after five minutes to find it untouched. I would be willing to guess that happens nineteen times out of twenty. That’s pretty good odds.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to have your laptop stolen. In that case, the odds stink.

As library employees, we have to figure out how to deal with the people who figure that their odds are good. That is, every few hours, a library employee will spot a neglected laptop. We don’t have a real policy for this, not a properly published policy. What we generally do is hang around for a bit waiting for the owner to come back, at which point we inform the laptop owner that five laptops have been stolen out of the library this semester, and that his could well have been the sixth. The student expresses chagrin and the employee goes back to the desk and gripes to co-workers, who shake their heads. This is about as effective in dealing with the problem as the four-dozen signs we posted.

I believe, by the way, that there are professionals hanging around the library, particularly on evenings and weekends, mingling with the students and keeping their eyes open for opportunities. If this is not the case, then laptop fencing must not be very lucrative, as it certainly appears to be an obvious niche if there’s money in it. But it is possible that it is students doing the thieving for their own benefit. There is disagreement in amongst the staff about the theft of the X-Box from the Collaboration Pod; there are people who feel that the unit is most likely sitting in a dorm room, a replacement for a busted one, and there are people who feel that the unit was traded by a student for drugs or drug money, and those who agree with YHB that a professional took the thing to his fence. No evidence, of course, just a difference in worldview. I should say that the students who work at the desk tend to the idea that the thieves are other students, which might carry some observational weight.

At any rate, whether the laptops are being taken by students or outsiders, we would like it to stop. And we aren’t sure how to go about instilling more caution in our patrons (which is the best and easiest first step). Some of us feel that when we come across a laptop alone, we should take it to the circ desk, leaving behind a message that we have taken protective custody. The drawbacks of this plan are obvious, but the benefits might possibly outweigh them. I don’t know. I would think that would be the likeliest to spread via anecdote—a fellow who sees a message left on top of his laptop might not tell anyone, after all, even if his own actions are altered in future. And we won’t reach everyone individually, so we need to rely on social changes. On the other hand, I work at the circ desk, and I really really don’t want to be the one to whom the student applies for the safe return of their property. Particularly not as we get toward the end of the semester, when tempers are short.

I don’t really have a solution, nor do I expect GRs to come up with one (although, yes, it would be lovely). I’m just griping, because people are stupid and other people are dishonest, and the combination can really ruin my workday.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

9 thoughts on “Mostly, people don’t take stuff. Mostly.

  1. Quill

    I can see how protective custody might help, except…how do you know that the person who comes to retrieve the laptop is in fact the owner? If your thieves are clever, they might catch on. And I doubt many people have their names engraved on their computers.

    If they are password-locked, that would be one way to prove the owner, I suppose.

  2. ruthling

    Is crime actually up, or are there just more laptops around to steal?

    I’m curious why you think the crimes are “profesional” while the students think the problem is other students. It doesn’t really change the outcome, though.

    I don’t have a solution — it would be nice to live in a world where people didn’t take things that didn’t belong to them but that doesn’t change the reality of a laptop being a portable valuable object, and a very painful thing to lose, especially mid-paper or exam. Even if students are using cheap netbooks and saving everything “in the cloud” so they don’t lose much, it’s still a pain in the ass to replace and reconfigure, etc. Maybe you need more obvious, more intense messaging: “Thieves don’t care that you have a paper due tomorrow. Do not leave your laptop unattended” or “While you’re reading this, someone could be stealing your latop. Keep it with you or lock it up at all times” or “It takes less than 30 seconds for someone to steal your laptop. How much time will it take you to redo all your work. Lock it up.”

    Leaving a sign on an unattended laptop saying “Someone could have stolen this” or taking them into “custody” would probably get the point across — at the very least, it ups the chance that there’s a much less but still negative consequence to leaving the laptop unattended which might change behavior — even if I never get my laptop stolen, I still need to talk to that guy over at circulation and it’s embarrassing.

  3. Nao

    I have read about librarians who have preprinted slips of paper that say something like.

    “There are thieves active in the library. If I had been one of them, your laptop would be gone now. -the librarian”

    It does seem to help.

  4. Catherine

    Yeah, I was coming here to suggest the “note on the unattended laptop” idea as well. I agree that word-of-mouth (what the kids today are calling “viral”) would spread less quickly for this method than for the protective custody method, but also keep in mind that the laptop, with the note on it, may be seen by other students passing by, so there’s that to consider as well.

    Unattended laptops are a HUGE (seriously, GINORMOUS) problem at MPOW, simply because they do. not. disappear. Even after being left for hours. I realize this is a problem that many would love to have, but it makes conveying the seriousness of the situation rather difficult.

  5. Vardibidian

    Quill, my impression is that most student laptops have enough identifying stuff on their virtual desktops that it shouldn’t be a problem, but you are right, that isn’t something we have thought about. Also–welcome! If you are new to this Tohu Bohu. If you have just changed your nom-de-net, then, well, you are still welcome!

    Ruthling, I don’t have any data on laptop use within the library, so I don’t know if the rise in the number of thefts is that startling a rise in the percentage of laptops stolen. Still, it’s enough of a rise (and it’s not only in the library) that I have to think it’s likely to be actual, not proportional.

    As for the difference between my guess and the students’, it’s probably due to our having different places in the university. I come from off-campus, so I am thinking about people coming from off-campus; they come from the dorms and are thinking about people coming from the dorms. But also it seems to me that if there is any organized criminal activity at all in the area, and we know that there is, this seems like a ripe spot. Of course, I don’t really know anything about that life, so I don’t know if the ROI/Risk really is better here than elsewhere.

    We seem to be heading toward an actual policy of either taking the unattended laptops into protective custody and leaving a note in place, or just leaving a note. Our Campus Cops have advised us that is we are going to carry away any laptops (or purses, phones, tablets, etc) we should do so in pairs, for witness, not alone. So staffing levels may make that choice for us.

    Catherine, I am amused, but I understand the problem. At least when we do talk to a laptop-leaver, we are able to say ‘5 stolen out of the library this semester’, which is pretty persuasive. More so that ‘you don’t want to be the first, do you?’

    I am always tempted to open up their current document and type into it ‘YOU LEFT YOUR LAPTOP OUT YOU MORON’ but then I imagine their poor instructor reading it. Because proofreading? Not so much.


  6. textjunkie

    I am impressed that you are concerned. I think by having the signs out you’ve done your due diligence, and if a kid walks away from their laptop and it disappears, that’s life in the big city. This is a college library that is open to the public, and they are adults, no? Geez, even sitting in a coffee shop with lots of people around you don’t get up to use the bathroom and leave your computer unattended without asking someone to watch it–that’s just silly.

    So count me among the headshakers over “kids these days.” 😉 But if you WANT to have a slip of paper you can leave saying “Your computer could have been stolen, you should take it with you when you leave your seat”, more power to you.

  7. Jacob

    Re: document editing — if the desktop isn’t locked, there are all kinds of fun things you can do, such as reconfigure the display driver to make everything appear upside down, or change the sound settings such that you hear breaking glass whenever you touch a key. But probably a bad idea.

    One possibly effective thing, if there was any reasonable way to do it, might be to lock up the laptop for them. That is, if you spot an unattended laptop, you lock some sort of big thing to it, the equivalent of putting the boot on a car, and they have to lug it down to the desk and get someone to unlock it.

    One last thing to suggest; many universities subsidize the purchase of the S.T.O.P. laptop sticker (which is apparently unremovable and acts as a strong deterrent against theft):

  8. Dan P

    Oh, for the heady days of my youth, when, upon encountering an unattended login session on a VAX terminal, we would compose delightfully self-mocking posts to the institution-local USENET group and send the absentee user copies of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” script (with audience-participation notes) from themselves. Surely such tactics are beneath the dignity of adult librarians in good standing. Though they might not be explicitly condoned, perhaps they might pointedly not be discouraged amongst the more enthusiastic spirits of the student cohort?

    (A little slap-happy today)


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