By H.E. Whitney
In Search of Space: Individual Claims of Public Space and Property in the University Library.
November 15, 2009
So I begin this short essay from the standpoint of a lowly staff assistant at a university library. The perks of the job are few but when I am free, I do manage to scour the internet for minutiae such as the latest football standings, the most recent Paul Krugman article, the newest row concerning Glen Beck’s antics, insect studies, or innovations in waste disposal. Occasionally I will peruse alternative media such as the Boston Phoenix or Alternet or high brow cultural magazines and journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, or the Journal of Postmodern Culture. Outside of these moments I lend study room keys to students, remove paper jams from the library printers, troubleshoot computer software problems, or help students research their papers. It is a thankless job, but since I am a graduate student, the librarians who hired me now have comfortable respites from these otherwise rote aspects of working in a college library. I’ve spent much of my life in the library so I probably know more about where things are than they do.
One of the most intriguing aspects of a college library environment is the quest for space. I don’t have to worry about finding a desk or table to perform my duties because one is already set aside for me to assist patrons. But the patron must find a table or chair to study or a workstation from which to scroll through Facebook pages or YouTube videos. (I think it is hilarious that there are signs on the workstations saying These Computers Are Reserved fo Academic Research Only when half of the monitors I see show the Facebook websites on any given day.) Yet what intrigues me about working in the library is the quest for space and the array of conventions used by students to establish personal territory.
Butted table-tops. (See first picture.) The circular or rectangular table-tops in my work area are about 3 ½ feet in diameter. Normally when I arrive to work, I will see two or three tables butted together but only one occupant. The occupant is sometimes waiting for two or three fellow students. Gender tends to play a role in this phenomenon, as women tend to study with other women while men tend to be solitary when they study. But since the tables are 3 ½feet in diameter, three “ordinary” sized people should be able to comfortably share a single table. (I know, I know: we are all fat Americans, right?) Yet two or three people using two tables is overkill. Which leads to. . .
Reserving chairs and tables simply by leaving personal effects on them. This occurrence is widespread. Visualize the following scenario. There is one table with three chairs. There is one student sitting in one of the three chairs. Yet he or she has placed his or her laptop in one chair and a knapsack or book bag in the other. So three chairs at this table are presumably “occupied”, although there is only one human being using the table. For prospective library patrons looking for a study area, this particular table has been exclusively cordoned off by this one patron. (See second picture.) In this picture, the woman’s purse also appears to be “studying”. While there is an empty chair across from the woman for another person to sit and share the table, she has made it clear that her bag will not defer its chair to a prospective human occupant. This isn’t bad in itself but when there are several other people at tables doing the same thing, demand for tables and chairs goes through the roof.
This scenario is laughable insofar as it expresses the vanity of claiming a public object for one’s self or for ones property. The mind of the college student who perpetrates this act is sadly misinformed by our system of commodity and exchange, which seeks to place a value on everything, including abstractions such as “space”. For the table hogger, he or she feels leaving belongings on the table constitutes the purchase of that table for his or her exclusive use. The problem is compounded when the occupant leaves the table for extended period of time, yet leaves his or her belongings at the table.
During peak periods when library traffic is high, a table that is being “used”, but with no human occupant, presents problems: for one, it inconveniences other patrons who need tables to attend to their studies. It is also a waste of resources from the library’s point of view: fewer individuals can use tables when a single individual has laid exclusive claim to them and fails to maximize the use of them from the communitys perspective. (See third picture.) In this picture the table (foreground) is “occupied” by a single individual: there is a single book bag on the table-top with a book and notepaper. In an attempt to preserve “ownership” of this table, the patron has left his or her stuff at the table. I see this very often, but I’ve also seen people leave valuables such as iPods, cell phones, laptops, and purses unattended for hours!
Nothing is more instinctive to the capitalist mind but to declare a thing mine: even when that thing is shared by all. Tables and chairs in libraries are publicly shared objects. Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that we perhaps need to get library patrons in general to understand knowledge as a communal endeavor instead of as an object to be individually possessed at all costs. Libraries exist to serve the needs of all knowledge seekers, so it should make sense that we can share library furniture as well as books, right?
H.E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. H.Es fields of study are the history of science, intellectual history, and technology and culture. H.E. is originally from Suffolk, Virginia but has called California, Ohio, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Florida home at some point. H.E. has taught philosophy and graphic design/multimedia studies at the college level and enjoy creating digital art when not pontificating on scientific, cultural, or historical matters.