Thieves About?

Julia Carr-Catzel


Exam season means extended library hours, overworked students, and a whole lot more items left unattended. A ten minute coffee break could mean the difference between passing an assessment with flying colours or spending exam period crying in lost-in-found.


My eyes wandered over to a boy hovering over his desk. The student appeared to be deliberating something. And then he left. A full backpack strewn was across his chair, and laptop lay closed – abandoned. 20 minutes drummed by, and the boy hadn’t returned.


The student’s negligence is by no means uncommon. The ebb and flow of UTS Library sees just as many ownerless laptops as it does bean bag droolers and scattered retro style ‘No-Doz’ boxes. The proliferation of abandoned laptops however, marked by exam season, means greater chances of theft.  


I’m not averse to leaving a laptop for a quick dash to the loo. But this is never without anxiety or doubt. And never exceeding five minutes.


This boy however —and his lengthy absence—indicated a sheer disregard for his belongings. Politics of reserving seats aside, I was stumped he was able to avoid  anxiety-riddled trips away from the desk.


Is ignorance the key? Or am I cynical to question the morality of my student collective?


The negligent student fuelled my desire for a study session like his. One void of stress, of peaceful pees, with 20 minute breaks without losing my seat. Was that too much to ask?


Meeting Elvis – no, not the king


Elvis’ office is on the ground floor of the library, next to the magazine stands and installation art. But with the door closed and its clinical lighting and shelves, it resembles virtually any office anywhere in the world.


With 20 years’ experience in UTS’ security department, Elvis Petrov has seen his fair share of frazzled students.


“This one student was distraught she’d lost her USB. She said she’d rather have lost her phone or laptop, and that would she would have to start all her work all over again,” he said.


As Library Security Supervisor of the Haymarket Precinct, Elvis advises students on a regular basis. “Even though the library is pretty safe, you really don’t want your stuff to go missing. There’s a financial cost and mental cost. I see students stressing all the time. It only takes five to ten minutes.”


Elvis toyed with the tiny microphone I’d given him. “Students are always leaving valuables unattended. All the time. They study really hard. When you’re into your work, studying for hours, you go out for a cigarette break, toilet breaks, coffee breaks – you forget about your stuff.”


A walkie-talkie latched onto Elvis’ belt let out a tinny feed.He continued, “It’s a problem that’s been around for a long time. I’ve known that from talking to librarians from different universities. It’s a wide problem all over the place.”



Why? “Because they did”


Elvis had confirmed the problem, yet the psychology was still unclear. What assurances did those who did not forget, those who voluntarily left their belongings have?


I directed close friends to a rudimentary online survey, with questions including: ‘you leave valuable belongings because (a) you need to use the restroom (b) for coffee or food (c) to stretch your legs (d) save my seat’, and ‘what is the longest period you have left valuables unattended?’


Responses were somewhat predictable. Students chose ‘to save my seat’ as the number one reason for leaving valuables unattended. Others noted ‘working in pairs’ the best solution to protect belongings.


But respondents were spilt when asked whether they trusted their student colleagues. Half claimed to trust students not to steal, the other half assumed otherwise.


A branch of psychology called ‘crowd psychology’ may just offer some answers. Its founding father, Gustave Le Bon, suggests, “In a crowd every sentiment and act is contagious to such a degree that an individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.”


Crowd psychology suggests that crowd behaviour is heavily influenced by loss of responsibility of the individual and the impression of universality of behaviour. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Crowds generally follow what is right, what is rational, what makes sense.


Until they don’t. In a recent scientific study by Melbourne psychologists Cameron Pryor and Piers Howe, the ‘cascade effect’ describes social patterns where individuals unknowingly follow the irrational choices of others.


The psychologists use an example of walking past a busy restaurant, and a quiet one. One could easily assume the popularity and higher value of the busy restaurant, and choose to dine there. But the passer-by may fail to recognise the busy restaurant was only packed because it had opened hours earlier than its neighbour, allowing for more diners.


Applying this scenario to the library – the individual may follow actions of the student collective, driven by its own irrational, arbitrary reasoning.


But what compels us to follow is the desire to belong, or what Cameron Pryor calls ‘self-categorisation theory’: dependence on a group to allow for a personal sense of self to be defined.


Losing our sense of will in a crowd, dissolved in anonymity and propelled by a feat of impressive biological and subconscious voices, we follow and we neglect our expensive laptops.  


How often do thefts occur?


Leaving valuables unattended in the library may be neither irrational nor arbitrary.


Unless you consider 15 thefts a year a problem.


“Even though we don’t get many thefts in the library, we still warn [students] there’s a possibility their items could get stolen,” Elvis said.


Rates of library theft have drastically dropped since security gates were installed in 2002.


Signs reading ‘Help Stop Theft: Do Not Leave Your Belongings Unattended’ decorating library walls have also helped deter theft


What happens if you do lose your stuff?


If you find yourself in the pool of the 15, various mechanisms are in place to help retrieve back that thousand dollar MacBook air, or HD assignment-carrying USB.


Theft is punishable with exclusion from the Library, and further penalty decided by the Director of Governance Support Unit, as enshrined by UTS Legislation, Rules and Policies handbook.


Thefts are also reported, supported by CCTV, to be lodged and left in the hands of police.


Elvis says the return rate of lost items is very high.


“The amount of lost property handed in each year is well into the thousands. But 99% of valuables (laptops, watches) are returned. The items we don’t return are usually pencil cases, clothing.”


This can be seen on the UTS Library website, recorded as conversations between distressed students and library staff.




Tagging, chaining, studying in pairs?


But for those who prefer not to take the chance, various protections are available.


Some universities have advised students to study with others, place bag loops around chairs, and encouraged students even hold bags tightly when napping.


“I’ve seen students chaining their bags to the tables with bike locks,” Elvis said.


Tagging valuables with electronic devices was proposed by students at Macquarie University where thefts are rife.


Fortunately, and unlike Macquarie, UTS Library isn’t open to the public. “The thefts that do happen, happen outside the library, Market City. Most theft is by non-students, people coming from off campus, areas open to the public,” Elvis said.


Despite the low rate of theft, Elvis encourages students to protect their belongings: “We talk to students all the time, we don’t criticise them. We obviously understand they’re under a lot of stress because of their studies and we’re very understanding. But we let them know they don’t want the extra stress.”



Perhaps my negligent library friend was not so negligent after all. Perhaps his 20 minute absence wasn’t questionable. It was feasible he too had questioned the student collective, or sought justification from friends, and felt anxious during those long 20 minutes. Or, it was possible he just had more important things on his mind.