This seat is taken – or is it?

Annoyance in the libraries when computers are claimed

Foto: Taco van der EbIt was hard to find a place especially around the time of secondary school finals.

Door Vincent Bongers en Petra Meijer

Sometimes you have to fight to get a computer and it can turn quite ugly. Mare examines library etiquette (or rather, the lack of it).

(De originele Nederlandse versie staat hier)
Hanneke Withaar (24) is has been at the University Library (UB) since quarter to nine: “Because I have to work on my thesis, but it’s also because all the computers are taken otherwise,” she explains. At nine o’ clock, most of the computers were still free but in the following hours, all the places in the library were occupied, according Withaar.
It’s now 1 p.m. and most of the computers are indeed taken. There are only four green spaces – indicating the available computers – to be seen on the floor plan on the display in the large hall.
“After twenty minutes of inactivity, the user is logged off the computer”, Kurt De Belder, the head of Leiden’s university libraries, explains. “Which means, in theory, that the work station is free again.”
But at the computers, students appear to have marked their territory by burying the work station in pens, papers and books.
“A student who wishes to use the computer can do one of two things: move the previous user’s stuff out of the way or notify the desk clerk. He or she will put the stuff in a basket and store it behind the desk where it can be collected”, continues De Belder.
“In theory, students can push other people’s things to one side, but it takes some nerve,” says desk clerk J.W. Van der Luijt. He has had a few words with students about the matter once or twice. De Belder does not know of any complaints from students whose things have been removed, but there are plenty of complaints about users who leave their belongings at the work stations.
Withaar has left her things behind at one of the computers too. “And my flash card’s still in the computer too – they wouldn’t dare remove it.” She can’t think what else to do. “If I don’t leave it, the computer will be taken by the time I get back. If there are any computers free in the afternoon, their USB ports are usually broken. I just can’t deal with that right now. I depend on these computers because I only have a mini-laptop and I can’t use that to type out an entire thesis.”
If you bring your own laptop, you can usually find a space, but not always. “When there are Law exams, your lot just take over”, says Laura Nelck (20, Medicine) to Law student Renate Smolders (22), who has her “own” table in the UB with others from her Augustinus debating society. “If anyone else is already at our table, we tend to send some irritated messages on WhatsApp,” admits Smolders. Nelck replies: “There should be more room in the KOG (Kamerlingh Onnes Gebouw).”
The Kamerlingh Onnes Building is busy too, and tempers are frayed. “It’s annoying when students are gone for an hour and leave their stuff here”, grumbles Eline van Slijpe (19, Law). “I’ll sometimes go out for half an hour and leave my books”, says Mendel Noordegraaf (24, Law). “But sometimes, students drop off their things here and then go to a tutorial, which means they’re gone for almost two hours. That’s just not on.”
“There can be some friction when people take up a place and promptly don’t spend much time at the computer - then a student might remove the chair from the work station while the other one is on a break, for instance”, says Manon van der Velden (24, Master of Juvenile Law).
“It’s difficult to tell exactly how long the users are gone. We can’t get out stopwatches to time them. Perhaps they’ve gone to the loo, having a coffee or relaxing for an hour. We’d welcome any ideas here”, says De Belder. “Of course, we’re looking at solutions. Perhaps we could experiment with sensors on the work stations without computers, which would emit a signal when someone sits on the chair. But then again, people should still have the chance to go for a coffee and I can’t help feeling that it’s all getting a bit Big Brother-ish. I’d like to say: ‘Come on, everyone, we should be able to solve this like grown adults. If you’re going to be gone for an hour, take your stuff with you.’ Users should be more considerate.”
But in reality, things are different. Smolders gives an illustration of the lack of solidarity. “On the master’s programme, there’s a themed tutorial and we all have to use the same book. The idea is to pass it around but some students hide it between other books so they can always use it while their fellow students can’t find it.”
Another annoyance: students who occupy the scarce computers and spend their time on Facebook or watching Lionel Messi highlights.
“We have also noticed that some students who occupy the work stations to do all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with their studies: trading on Marktplaats (the Dutch eBay) and so on, which is annoying, to say the least,” said Dennis Hoitink of the Law department’s faculty board at a faculty council meeting.
“I’m in favour of gentle social control. If I see someone spending three quarters of an hour selling all his worldly goods, I’ll go over and say ‘These facilities are not intended for those activities. That poor student over there is waiting to do his work”, said Pieter De Tavernier, a Civil Law lecturer and council member. Nonetheless, history student Withaar thinks a moment on Facebook should be allowed. “No one can concentrate for hours on end.”
“I’d estimate that every one in six times I’m here, no computers are available”, says Fabian van de Ven (23, Master of Business Law). “It was hard to find a place especially around the time of secondary school finals.” Complaints about schoolgoers and other outsiders were heard at the faculty council meeting too. “They take up our places”, said Gosia Szymaniak of the student party LVS. “Actually, someone ought to throw these people out, gently but firmly.”
According to Hoitink, the problem is that the KOG is a public building. “We should see if we can enforce the rules more strictly but we don’t want to have to be heavy-handed and demand proof of identification from everyone. Students shouldn’t shy from approaching schoolgoers, or from reporting them to the doorman.”
Lawson: “This has touched a nerve. School kids evidently like to work here, which is great on the one hand, but that’s not what this library is for. At least, not when it’s already crowded.” Assessor Tim van Lit has already made print-outs with the text: “Access to students and staff with LU-cards only.” “But the notices keep disappearing. Very odd.”
Lawson: “Maybe the board needs to invest in a sign.”
According to De Belder, the free access is seen as a very important matter. “The library is partly funded with taxpayers’ money. Besides, libraries are the portals to academic knowledge and that should, in theory, be accessible to everyone who is interested. On the other hand, university staff and students should always have the opportunity to use the facilities – their rights mustn’t be affected.”
As it is, the university is not intending to create more work stations with computers. “We can’t keep up”, claims De Belder. “We’ve doubled the number of work stations since the rebuilding but they’re always occupied too. Even if we added another hundred PCs, it wouldn’t be enough. Improving the facilities means that you attract more and more users.”
He stresses that the Law board can always choose to install gates. “There are turnstiles at the Witte Singel, so you can only enter if you have an LU-Card. That could be an option for us too.”
Students at the University of Applied Sciences can apply for a free LU-Card and schoolgoers and other outsiders still have the option of becoming members of the UB for thirty Euros, as schoolgoers often do, according to Van der Luijt. “But since we’ve installed the gates, people are more hesitant. You can’t just wander in any more.”
That is also good for security, but library staff still warn students not leave valuable items unattended and not to use mobile phones or laptops to mark their place. Van der Luijt added: “I saw a laptop, an iPhone and an open bag with a purse in it left lying about while the owner vanished for three hours. At a certain point, I stored the things away because it just made me nervous.”
Nelck and Smolders leave their laptops in the study hall too. “I’m just very trusting”, says Smolders. “Besides, Laura has a Mac and I’ve got an ordinary laptop so I think they’d probably take hers first.”

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