One of the odd things about the library that employs me is that we are an odd sort of public/private place. We are, in point of fact, private—the university is a private one, and we could, if we chose, keep the public out. But in common with a lot of private university libraries (but by no means all), we have lots of services available for the public as well. We probably have a little more wide open a policy than most places: pretty much anybody can use anything within the library any time we are open. We do reserve the right to throw people out or kick them off the computer or just stop helping them over at reference, but we rarely exercise that right. There are always half-a-dozen or more people just camped out at one of our computers, doing whatever it is they are doing. Some of them are regulars, in every day or nearly, some for hours and hours. I know some of their names; others are nodding acquaintances.
Several of them appear to be running businesses out of our library. Well, and by running a business I mean that they are using our internet connection to do all that internetty stuff, filing paperwork and sending invoices and so on and so forth. There’s a sense in which the guy who is writing his memoirs is running a business, in that he is hoping to make money from selling the thing. Or you could argue, I suppose, that the people in here studying for the bar exam are running a business, in some indirect sense. Or the fellow who is doing investment research. But that’s not what I mean—I mean that they are doing the things that they would do in a home office, only they are doing them here. And not doing them once a month when the DSL is down, either. Five days a week, in for a few hours to take care of business.
Now, I have to admit that makes me a trifle uneasy. On the one hand, I totally understand that once you have let people come in here and use the internet and the books and periodicals and so on, it would be very wrong indeed to restrict that use because of the content. On the other, we are an educational institution, we get lots of money from various groups and individuals (not least the students who pay tuition) in order to support the educational mission of the institution, and there is something not altogether kosher about our using our resources to support businesses with no connection to the University. Or with a connection, one might even say. And there’s some sense in which allowing free riders to better themselves, to learn, to get exposure to the wide variety of fields we cover, to even up the digital gap a bit, is all very nice, but allowing free riders to make a quick buck or two isn’t so heartwarming.
Still. If we were to have a policy saying that you couldn’t run a business out of the library, we would have to enforce it somehow, and that would be much, much worse than letting people do their things. Clearly.
I would be curious, at this point, to know what Gentle Readers think at this stage, before I go any further. I won’t stop here and put a blank space, but please just think, for a moment, about your response to the situation, formulate it as if you were going to respond, one way or another. You would be easy in your mind about the regular use of the academic library by unaffiliated patrons for profit-oriented businesses unrelated to the university. You would be uneasy in your mind, but would rather put up with it than enforce some sort of exclusionary policy. You think we’re crazy to allow random people to come in and get on-line anyway. Something along those lines.
Now, another point: I’m pretty sure one of the fellows is running a business selling dirty movies. I’m not positive, but I think that’s what is going on—anyway, let’s posit that he is, or at least that somebody could well be. He is not watching dirty movies; that we could very easily put a stop to, if we wanted. Nothing more salacious than an occasional publicity still gets on-screen; mostly he appears to work on a catalogue of some kind, inventory perhaps, getting titles and addresses and whatnot. Now, I am aware that he could be doing research for a book, or I could be misreading what I glimpse on the screen (and I do attempt not to be nosy, for my own peace of mind), or there could be a million other explanations for what he is looking up, printing, and writing. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this guy is selling hard-core pr0n, yum yum, doing all of the internet and printer parts of the business on our machines. Does this affect your feeling about the policy? Because I have to say, it does affect mine. And I am not against dirty movies. I don’t think they should be illegal (any more than they currently are, and in places less), and from a logical, theoretical point of view I can’t make a real distinction between somebody who uses our stuff to run a business trading in smut and somebody who is buying and selling scrimshaw. And yet, the connotation is definitely there.
Now, another only distantly related policy issue. I happened to notice a fellow the other day who was drinking a beer while typing away. He appeared to be of age, and was not disruptive. He was a biggish fellow, and a cold beer on a hot day was liable to be good for him. In the absence of inebriation, is there some justification for preferring that our patrons drink a Coke rather than a beer? There is such a policy—and as my supervisor agreed, the policy effectively just asks patrons to drink their beer from a cup or mug, rather than drinking it from a bottle. The policy may have some justification (on a college campus, a policy that allows responsible drinking will lead to irresponsible drinking, and this is, after all, a library), but I can’t help thinking that what is behind it is a moral value that beer is worse than cola, even in moderation. And I don’t believe that. Any more than I believe that watching people fucking is worse than watching people fighting. And yet…
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,