Guest Essay "Reserving Our Sanity"
How Scarce Resources Should or Should Not Be Allocated
How can a professor make a book or article available to all of his/her students? One popular way is that the professor places a book or article "on reserve" at the library, where students may freely use the resource for a certain period of time.
What can we learn from this allocation system's strengths and weaknesses? Here is an analysis from a college student with direct experience, along with some remarks from The Progress Report.
Imagine you are a college student trying to do homework. Imagine you have books "on reserve" to read.
by Valerie Sherman
Those of us who are lucky enough to have had professors assign these understand what I mean — the happy little desk at the library where you can borrow books for two hours…no more.
The idea behind this is that students in the class can share books without having to buy them. This particularly applies to one of my classes in which students would have to purchase numerous volumes of the "Cambridge History of China," which probably would've topped our tuition costs.
The Progress Report adds -- so a resource might be scarce, either because it might be difficult to obtain (a rare, out of print book) or too expensive to obtain. In response to that, the "on reserve" system arises. People require exclusive access to a book or article, as it is impractical for several people to read the same thing at once -- therefore limits are placed on how long they can each enjoy exclusive access.
Reserve readings, however, carry inherent problems. For example, they rely as much on decent human nature as communism relies on a natural human work ethic. Problems libraries experience every day (students losing books, marking them up, turning them in late and generally causing havoc) are amplified with reserve readings.
For example, more students are reading them in a small period of time, so there is a greater chance of vandalism. I caught one of my classmates hiding between the shelves, "highlighting" with a hideous dark green marker. I could barely read the words on the page after he'd ravaged this poor book, so how will the generations after him read it? I doubt he'd thought that far ahead.
The Progress Report adds -- if a student marks in a book or article with a highlighter, this is analogous to dumping toxic waste on rented public land. How should it be prevented, and how should violations be penalized? Should students be required to post a bond, a deposit, as a requirement before they are allowed inside a library?
This young man will also help me illustrate another problem with reserve readings. Although the time limit is two hours, some students keep the books for longer. Much longer.
The other day, I arrived at the library at midnight, waited for the reading until 1 a.m., and when I found this individual (hiding between the shelves, of course), he had been there with the book since 9:30 p.m. Oh yes, that is three-and-a-half hours.
Individuals like this young man obviously do not take the time to think, when they're not highlighting, that there are other people in the world who need to read the books.
The Progress Report adds -- why do many people find it so difficult to understand that exclusive control of a scarce resource requires some sort of limit or else compensation to the excluded? Could a ruthless student "speculate" by monopolizing an on-reserve book and offer to rent access to others? This is frequently done with airwaves, and with grazing rights on federal lands.
To add another hideous level of irony to the whole situation, when I pointed these facts out to him, he told me he was reading the book for a class, so he needed it more than I did. Now, this person is in my class, and sorry, but I don't exactly read random volumes of the "Cambridge History of China" in the middle of the night because it's fun. I love history, but that's just too much.
The Progress Report adds -- Declaring that one "needs" a resource more than someone else is an attempt to remake legislation. The on-reserve system does not recognize different levels of need. Should it? Does a very large person have a right to more land than a very small person? Do fast readers have less right to an on-reserve book than slow readers?
Another instance where I encountered ignorance in reserve readings comes to mind. I have an out-of-print reserve reading from a different class, and I had no problem obtaining it a few weeks ago, before the rest of my class had started to think about reading it.
Last week, however, took a turn for the worse. While I thought it was rude to keep a book out for nearly twice the allotted time frame, someone actually took the reserve reading out, left the library with it, and has not returned it since. It has been gone for nearly two weeks.
Strangely, the library really has no way to combat this further than they already are. Library personnel tell every patron of the time limit on reserve reading rental, and any literate person can read, on the inside of any Milner Library book, the warning: "Theft, mutilation and underlining of books are reasons for disciplinary action and may result in dismissal from the University."
This appears to be as little a deterrent to book kidnappers and book rapists as the death penalty is to murderers. People continue to highlight and underline as long as they don't believe they will be caught, as my classmate between the bookshelves likely thought. I hope that when he gets his next bill from ISU and sees a mysterious library fine, he knows that it was me who turned him in. I'd do it again.
The Progress Report adds -- "Kidnapping" is a great term for the monopolizing of a scarce non-private resource. If someone called it "privatization" instead, would that make it all right?
Students of any level depend on books (hopefully) to aid them in learning, and they will not be the last person to read any library book they peruse. If people stopped taking such a self-centered view of the world, our books — the lifeblood of any university — would look far better. They would also be available to read.
The Progress Report adds -- just as no current student will likely "be the last person to read any library book they peruse," so will no current person likely be the last person to use a natural resource -- a site, an airwave frequency, a body of water, part of the atmosphere. This observation must be embodied in any successful system for fair access to naturally limited opportunities.
Valerie Sherman is a columnist and editor at the Daily Vidette. This article appears with her permission.
Can the "on reserve" system be improved without making it complex and burdensome? What does the "on reserve" system tell us about how natural resource access should be allocated? Share your opinions!
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