With unprecedented demand for UCD’s library facilities, Peter Molloy investigates just how safe those facilities may be.

It’s just after 3pm on a crisp autumn afternoon, and I’m loitering in the shadows of a bookshelf in UCD’s James Joyce Library – about to steal a laptop.

It really couldn’t be any easier. After watching and waiting for a moment to ensure the coast is clear, I stride briskly across to an empty desk on the second floor; tuck the computer under my arm, and turn to go. As I move off, no one seems to have noticed what I’ve just done.

One girl looks up from her work and gazes at me just a fraction too long, as if she knows something is up, but after a long heartbeat her eyes return to the note-pad in front of her. Thirty seconds later – having swiped out of the library with a stolen student card – I’m walking swiftly away down the concourse, my prize cradled tightly against my chest.

In reality of course, I haven’t actually just helped myself to a student’s cherished possession. The laptop is a plant, deliberately left unattended by another writer from The University Observer. Using that same writer’s borrowed student card gained access into the university’s main library to see just what kind of challenge might face a potential thief on campus. As I very quickly found out, there wasn’t much difficulty at all.

In the two minutes it took me to acquire a student laptop and exit the premises, my progress wasn’t impeded so much as once, either by other students using the facilities, or by library staff. No one queried the fact that I had taken a computer seemingly at random from a desk that I hadn’t been sitting at, nor even the fact I had entered and exited the library using a student card bearing the name and picture of a blonde 19-year-old female.

The experiment was working under the reasoning that an individual who wasn’t a current UCD student, and so would be using a lost or stolen student card could gain admission to restricted university facilities. The ‘stolen’ student card was deliberately selected to be a card featuring a photograph and identity which manifestly didn’t bear any resemblance to me, in order to find out whether or not staff working on the entrance would challenge me. A day later, I repeated the experiment – targeting another staged empty desk in a separate part of the James Joyce Library. Instead of a laptop, I took an MP3 player and a purse, this time using another female student card to enter the premises. Again, no one interfered with me as I slipped the items into my pocket and moved away towards the escalators. One student sitting in front of the empty desk glanced up for a moment or two, but didn’t attempt to interfere.

When I returned later on and identified myself, I asked that student, who wished to remain anonymous, if they had noticed me, and if so, why they had stayed silent.

“It didn’t really cross my mind twice. [If I’d definitely seen you take something] I might say something [to the student whose desk it was]; I wouldn’t necessarily go to Services or anything like that.”

That response failed to elicit any surprise from a Garda with a close professional knowledge of UCD, who remarked that with the university’s population roughly equalling that of Athlone town, “you’re always going to have crime happening here, there and everywhere”. Speaking on an unofficial basis, they confirmed that students leaving belongings for even brief periods of time to go for a cigarette break or visit a shop can result in instances of theft occurring.

A fellow member of the force elaborated on the issue and explained that even with personal electronic items like computers and mobile phones commanding significantly less resale prices than they may have done in the past, the risk involved in obtaining them was still sufficiently low to merit the attention of criminals.

Both Gardaí highlighted the practical role the force plays in trying to deter crime as much as is possible across UCD’s two campuses; with regular vehicle and bicycle patrols supplemented by a weekly scheduled clinic service in Belfield’s Newman Building. They were emphatic, however, in stressing that ultimate responsibility for the safety of personal possessions rested with owners themselves.

As the semester draws to a close and students begin to focus solidly on Christmas examinations, library facilities across campus inevitably face greatly increased demand. A source in UCD’s James Joyce Library confirmed that at peak times of day last month, even before the pre-exam period begins in earnest, occupancy reached figures as high as 2,000 users, with overall visits in a single day amounting on occasion to some 5,000 students.

The anonymity offered by these high occupancy figures is less than helpful in terms of limiting any potential acts of theft: at no other single time of year do the shelves of UCD’s five libraries witness more student traffic, and at no other time are the majority of library users arguably so busy and relatively inattentive to events around them.

At least one factor that can influence library users in deciding to take the risk of leaving belongings unattended is a desire to retain a seating place at peak times – something remarked upon by Deirdre Tuffy, a Second year Sociology and Philosophy student. “It’s kind of mainly as well to save a seat.”

The University Observer was unable to secure any official comment on the issue from a library spokesperson by the time of going to print; however, one staff member did speak about the question of security on an informal basis.

Stressing that current security arrangements seemed to be proving adequate, with only one reported case of laptop theft in the university’s libraries so far this year, they were still at pains to reiterate the basic advice that the best thing students concerned about personal property could do was to take care of their belongings at all times whilst on campus.

The staff member was severely critical of library users who leave expensive possessions unattended. They pointed out that even with library security and services so far escaping the funding cuts, which have affected other elements of the university’s operations, there is a limit as to what staff can accomplish without the practical cooperation of students:

“You wouldn’t leave your possessions unattended if you were using a Wi-Fi area in Dundrum Town Centre, for example”. That rather fundamental point – that leaving belongings unwatched for even a relatively short period of time can incur a significant risk – nonetheless seemed lost on students taking a break for a cigarette outside the James Joyce Library last week.

Third year Commerce student, Aisling Cullen said that, “I always leave my laptop upstairs. [I] kind of would be worried about it, but I wouldn’t go to the hassle of putting it in my bag and bringing it out. I do think about it, but I don’t really think it’ll happen to me.”

Standing beside her on the concourse, Zara Johari, a Second year Sociology and Politics student, had left even more behind her at her desk. “I’ve left my phone, my wallet, my bag, my laptop, and all my notes up there. I do think it’s stupid though – I do think people take things. I didn’t really think about it when I was coming out, but if I was leaving for longer I’d definitely leave my laptop, but I’d take [the other items].”

Both students agreed that they would almost certainly fail to register any theft around them if it occurred at a place belonging to a library user they didn’t personally know. “If there was a guy sitting beside me that I didn’t know and someone came up and took his laptop, I probably wouldn’t say anything.
“You’d be too scared because then they might say, ‘oh, I’m their friend’, and then you can’t do anything.’”

Students’ Union (SU) President, Aodhán Ó Deá maintained that security in the university’s library facilities is relatively satisfactory, but confirmed that problems have occurred in the past.

“My own laptop was stolen when I was in second year; it’s a terrible thing to happen to any student, and it really puts any student off. At the time, it was happening in the library a lot, and it did happen a good few times that year, but the person who was doing it was actually caught, and since then there was a huge drop in the amount of laptops being stolen.”

“It is an issue, but it’s become less of an issue – the library has taken measures themselves. The library at the beginning of last year started a campaign against this by handing out [warning] leaflets every time they found a laptop unattended. It did help raise awareness. I’d like to see something further implemented there – I wouldn’t say they’re completely adequate, but at the same time I wouldn’t say they’re inadequate”.

When Ó Deá was informed of the results of the investigation carried out by the paper he conceded that the findings were a cause for concern, commenting, “That is something that we’d have to look at. One of the things that struck me about the student card entry was that, unlike a gym or unlike somewhere else, your picture doesn’t really flash up on a screen, or if it does they don’t pay much attention to it, which at the same time could be hard when there’s two or three rows of people coming in. It’s definitely a point we’ll have to raise.”

Meanwhile, however, it is clear that it’s student attitudes towards theft as much as practical security procedures, which need to be revised. However, this invariably will take time.