Theologians do not steal books, it is assumed, because theologians are aware of the commandment about theft. This assumption was once challenged by a colleague who said to me, straight-faced, that if a theologian is called by a higher power to have that book, to read, learn, and inwardly digest the book, then rules and regulations will not get in the way of their calling. They will have the book by hook or by crook. This logic needs to be challenged by the knowledge that a light-fingered, not to say light-minded, theologian has other friends and colleagues, people we call neighbour, who also want the same book and may hear the same call.
This facetious dialogue about borrowing and theft in the library came to mind while reading a thread on Atlantis this week. Atlantis is the e-list of the American Theological Library Association (ATLA). I quote the discussion in order, with contributors’ names given at the end to protect the innocent, and even the guilty, for all I know.
A opens up the question thus: “I’d be interested to hear from other ATLA libraries about what you do to prevent theft. I’m not actually thinking about theft of our books (most have security strips, but I know that does happen as well.) No what I am thinking of is theft from patrons. Our students and visitors tend to leave their backpacks, laptops, cellphones, pocketbooks etc. unattended on tables and in carrels around our library. And then they are shocked and upset when something gets stolen.
“We’ve tried speaking to them about this at orientation, we have signs on our carrels telling them not to leave items unattended, and we have flyers that the staff put down when we see someone’s items left unattended – and yet, they still do it and stuff still gets stolen. I’d be interested to hear how other libraries handle this issue.”
B responds, speaking from experience: “In New York, in the early 1990s when the crime rate was higher, I would tell patrons who proposed leaving their items in the reading room, ‘We are in the big city.’ Creating the impression that you will be nice and take care of these patrons, does them a disservice. There are thieves abroad and we can't catch them, at least not all of them. The problem we have is that our patrons create an attractive nuisance by leaving good stuff to steal. No sympathy with ‘em.”
The good stuff could include the library books too, one hastens to observe. It’s one thing to be urbane about the urban environment, but C proffers more practical advice : “Do you have signs posted around the library that you are not responsible if personal items are stolen? I worked at [a library where] signs were posted literally everywhere. There were also lockers in the one of the libraries, which was helpful. You could perhaps try posting signs such as Don’t leave your laptop unattended lest your research might walk away.”
B starts getting complex and philosophical: “I suppose people are also upset and blame the director of public parks when they leave their laptop on a picnic table in a public park and go away for a couple of hours, finding that the laptop has mysteriously disappeared. But really, our public spaces in libraries are just that, public spaces (even if we are private libraries, with restricted access, they are about as public as we get). Only really invasive access policies and searches could prevent theft, and that would require (for instance) keeping any laptop out of the library that wasn't permanently marked with the identity of the person entering with it and then re-matching laptops and IDs on the way out. That would not only be prohibitively expensive, but would offend most patrons (especially Emeritus Professor McPrivilege, who couldn't be left out of the regimen without it becoming discriminatory).”
Curious how borrower types repeat themselves across national borders and great oceans, but B now gets not only counter-intuitive about how to stop stealing, B enters a theological whirlpool: “My recommendation would be humorous signs, reminding people that they are allowed to not steal other people's materials left out on these public tables, but they shouldn't expect that everyone will adopt this laudable practice. After all, not all your patrons are Methodists on the path to perfection--in this interreligious environment, some are Calvinists, subject to Original Sin and Total Depravity.”
This Augustinian development is met with an Augustinian paradox, of the kind referred to in the opening of this essay. D steps in: “Yes, but the Calvinist, knowing his justifiably condemned condition, finding himself with his eyes open to see God’s absolutely amazing gift of salvation through faith in the death of Christ, would be so grateful for this indescribable gift, that he should never want to sully his Savior’s name by stealing a lap top. “
Contributors (in alphabetical order by surname):
Philip Harvey: Librarian, The Carmelite Library, Melbourne
Andrew Kadel: resident in Yonkers, New York
Amy Limpitlaw: Head Librarian, Boston University, School of Theology Library
Ruth L. Slagle: Public Services Librarian, Baptist College of Florida, Graceville
Debbie Wright: Cataloger, Turpin Library, Dallas Theological Seminary