March 10, 2010

Situations in the Library

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Last semester, one of us (who shall henceforth be known as “Ace”) was confronted by a situation that put her in a blind rage.

She entered Libe Café, ready to work but craving coffee first. She put her backpack on a chair at a table and then left for the line. When Ace got back three minutes later, two people had moved her stuff aside and claimed the table as their own.

The second half of this dynamic duo (who shall henceforth be known as “Cat”) observes that Ace is getting angry just thinking about this experience.

When we were talking about this in our apartment, everyone had a similar story to tell: Somebody has moved your stuff, or somebody saves a seat for much longer than is acceptable.  These are the silent laws of the library.  And let’s face it, no one actually abides by those “After 15 minutes you may gently push belongings aside” signs in the library.  We at Cornell comply with understood markers of reserved personal space.

Let’s discuss what constitutes a legitimate territorial marker in the library.

One of our roommates recently came to Libe for a group meeting and found an unoccupied table with a stack of crumpled issues of the Sun and a half-filled tea container. Assuming the haphazardly strewn materials were mere jetsam, she placed her belongings there in preparation for a group meeting. Soon there after, the table’s previous resident showed up and gave our roommate a huge dose of attitude: “This is my table, that is my juice.”

It is clear who is in the right in this juicy situation.

Beverages and newspapers are questionable indicators of  “occupied space.” The rule, according to us, is that it has to be a marker of personal importance. A backpack or books, for instance. And it’s just common courtesy not to leave your stuff in a chair longer than the running time of Titanic.

Even though we have an abstract understanding of these rules, we are often befuddled when we encounter a book on a tabletop rather than a butt in a chair — what do you do when your butt and books are homeless in the library?

Naturally, we decided to explore the accepted behavior when you’re on either side of this dilemma: leaving your stuff or encountering someone else’s abandoned belongings. Unlike the previous examples, our experimental subjects failed to cause such a ruckus when their belongings were pushed to the outer limits (pun intended).

Exhibit A(ce):

Location:  A four-person table on the main floor of Olin.

Time:  Two weeks ago at approximately 1 p.m. on an unsuspecting Monday.

Two seats are occupied by humans, one seat by stuff and the other is completely empty. A couple of friends walk in and visibly struggle to calculate the answer to the problem of two people plus only one officially available desk.

The solution they decide on is for one of them to take the empty seat, as the other pulls up a random chair. While they patiently waited for the stuff’s owner to return, Ace decided to take action, moving the offending materials so she could claim the desk. Ace felt this was appropriate because of those handy “15 minute” signs that had obviously been violated in this situation.

The original occupant showed up a half hour later. She didn’t even look at Ace, just proceeded to gather her things and leave.

Exhibit C(at):

Location:  Libe Café.

Time:  One week ago at approximately 5 p.m. Cat entered and saw that two of the comfy chairs were covered by a bag and a coat, so she gently moved the objects to a nearby table and saved the seats for herself. (For the sake of finding out how someone would react, Cat ignored our rule about personal belongings as proper territorial markers.)

When the original occupant returned a few minutes later, he completely ignored Cat (as in Ace’s experience above) and gathered his things to leave. No surprised look. No angry confrontation. Just cutting his losses and moving on.

The obvious conclusion to draw from these, albeit limited, experiments is that Cornellians are unwilling to fight for their right to study space. However, we want to qualify this observation. We think that people just feel awkward about touching other people’s stuff, as they should.

Thanks, Mom — You taught us not to touch other people’s things, and now we have no study space.

Musings aside, it was actually quite liberating to stop stewing in a corner over a quasi-occupied desk and just do something about it. There’s a new law in town. It’s already on a sign in the library — we’re just calling some much-needed attention to it. RLD

Original Author: Allie Perez