Library Thefts on the Rise: Keep Your Backpack Close and Your Laptop Closer

By Chelsea Vitone

The expansion of the new Tioga Library building has increased study space and room for library materials, but with more space has come more theft of personal property. Purses, wallets, backpacks, laptops, and phones have come up missing more frequently than ever before, and the library administration think they know why.

During planning and design for the new building, the number of exits and entrances were a main point of contention, and a compromise was finally reached that included two entrances and exits instead of the previous one.

But more exits can also mean easier getaways. Charles Lord, Director of the UWT library, also points out that in a larger building the staff is no longer concentrated at central points, but spread throughout, limiting the ever present watchful eye. A number of factors have contributed to the rise in theft, but Lord also credits clever thieves: “When people are sitting at a split study partition, it is easy to slide a purse from one side to the other without the victim noticing.

Director of Campus Safety and Security, Susan Wagshul-Golden, confirms the rise in campus security concerns in pointing out that from January through May 2013, there were 13 thefts reported at the library, but between September and October 2013 alone there have been 14 reports of theft around the UWT campus.  

Preventative measures include preparing students for safety-conscious thinking at New Student Orientation, reminding everyone, as Wagshul-Golden states that “you wouldn’t leave cash on the floor or sitting on a table at a restaurant.  Campus is a public space too.  It only takes a second.”  

Since the library is a public space, they pride themselves on providing access to students as well as outside citizens of Tacoma. There is policy in place for disruptive behavior, but otherwise, anyone and everyone are welcome into the building. Lord points out that there are a number of “community visitors” who set off red flags for security officers and library administration alike, but without evidence of wrongdoing, it is impossible to evict them.

Lord believes that as a commuter campus, located in the heart of downtown, UWT may have become an easy target for criminals seeking high tech gadgets and other personal property. The library discourages sleeping in the building not to be cruel to exhausted students, but as a matter of security. Lord insists that students need to maintain vigilance and be aware of their surroundings, whether in the library or around campus.

The library is meant to be a safe and welcoming place for students to work and succeed, but Lord acknowledges the complexity of meeting the needs and desires of the student body, while managing the liability of student property. Doors need to remain unlocked for safety reasons, and with the staff already busy at their positions, it is difficult for anyone to monitor every entry or exit, especially without participating in discriminatory behavior such as profiling.

There have been brainstorming sessions with campus security to increase library security, but since resources are scarce, Lord suggests a type of Student Safety Officers; they could don vests and patrol the building in order to be a security presence, which would hopefully deter thieves. Wagshul-Golden acknowledges that such a project is in the discussion phase, but stresses the importance of student accountability and ownership in protecting their property.

Jennifer Sundheim, Assistant Director of UWT library, has seen first-hand the devastation felt by victims of theft, as one woman broke down crying when reporting her missing items. Sundheim points out that “it’s not just the item itself that is taken, but for college students, they may have assignments on a laptop, papers due, and even if they are able to replace it, there is no getting that work back.”

Wagshul-Golden reminds students that it is crucial they be aware of their surroundings and vigilant, even in an environment that feels safe and welcoming. She encourages students to follow their instincts, if they see anyone suspicious, report them immediately to a library staff member.