August 4, 2008


STOP, THIEF! Security is a legitimate concern at libraries and librarians often struggle to balance the ideal of open access with the reality that monitored areas are sometimes less prone to theft. Is it our responsibility to protect innocent borrowers from visitors who will prey on unattended valuables? What level of monitoring would our users prefer and what would serve the community's best interests? Librarians like to ask such questions of ourselves and each other. If no immediate agreement can be reached, we form committees to deal with the issue. Or, on certain occasions, we snap into action. This is story of one such action.

In my undergrad years, I worked as a circulation desk attendant and student supervisor at the Oberlin College Library. One year, we had a rash of laptop and backpack thefts. No matter how many signs we posted warning people of the danger, they still left their stuff unattended and it still got stolen. One patron came to the desk in tears to report not one, not two, but three separate thefts of her valuables over the course of a week. (Responses among library staffers ranged from sympathy to incredulity that she would leave her stuff unattended the second two times.)

The library administration decided reporting these numerous incidents to Safety and Security after the fact was not enough. We needed to catch a thief red-handed. Thus, a plan was hatched and a LIBRARY STAKEOUT was born.

Late in the semester, the library's student workers received an email announcing extra work shifts. We were told we had the chance to join the library's effort to end the theft problem once and for all (well... at least for that school year). Get paid for a covert mission in the library? Yes, please! The following day, I signed up for my very own stakeout.

This is how it went down: A circulation staffer planted a "dummy" backpack in a high-traffic area of the library. Whoever was on stakeout duty got paid to sit in a darkened room for an hour with a walkie-talkie and keep a watchful eye on our planted backpack. If we saw someone grab the bag, we were to radio down to library administration, where the library director or assistant director would run out of his office and stop the thief as he or she exited the building. The staff implemented this plan with fervor (that particular and rare fervor of bored library workers who are suddenly tasked with a vitally important stakeout mission).
Photo: abbyladybug on Flickr - pretty much exactly where our backpack was planted.

You're probably buzzing with excitement right now, just as we were in those precious, early days of Operation Catch-A-Thief.... Come on, already! Did you catch the thief or what?

Day in and day out, we watched that dummy backpack. Day in and day out, we brought the backpack back to the staff area at the end of the day's scheduled stakeout shifts, simultaneously relieved and disappointed that no theft of our utterly conspicuous fake bag had been attempted.

Soon, since no more thefts had occurred, the stakeout shifts became more expensive than they were worth. How could it have been that we had so many thefts, followed by none at all, right as we began our stakeouts?

I have a theory. Remember that email I told you about, in which all the student workers of the library system were offered extra hours? And remember how hilarious and ridiculous it seemed that the library would pay us to sit in a darkened room watching a planted backpack, armed with only a walkie-talkie, intense focus and the library director as backup? I forgot to add that there was a clarifying email sent out a couple of days after the first, reminding us that this library stakeout mission was supposed to be... a secret.

But if all those other library workers were anything like me, they got that first email and immediately told everyone they saw that day about an amazing new project at the library. And like me, when they got that second email, they probably thought, "Oh, well... you probably should have told us that to begin with."

Instead of catching our thief red-handed, the Oberlin College Library effectively spread the word that the building was being closely monitored by staff. Instead of stopping crimes in progress, we successfully prevented them.

Come to think of it, all the library had to do was convince its student workers that a series of stakeouts would occur, and we took care of the rest. I guess it just goes to show: you should never, ever underestimate the power of a funny story.
Photo: StudentsReview - Oberlin's Mudd Library. Looks like a fortress, but it wasn't really. Until the stakeout.


  1. i miss the quirkiness of the oberlin library...especially the musty womb chairs. this entry also made me laugh out loud because it's so...oberlin-esque. i love it.

  2. Library stakeout! Oh, I remember this. I was so disappointed that the stacks workers were not asked to participate in the stakeout. Probably because they didn't trust us.