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  • Writer's pictureAlice Tecotzky

Stop the Steal: Library Edition

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

Columbia students battle the newfound awkwardness of distanced studying.

By Alice Tecotzky

Since the beginning of the year, Emily Olson, CC ’23, has visited the libraries only twice. It’s not that she doesn’t have work or isn’t craving a Yerba-Mate-induced plunge into midnight delirium. It’s just that these towering bastions of academia have buckled under the weight of the pandemic, stiffening security to reduce the spread. Now Olson struggles to find her place in this new, sanitized version of the bibliophilic world.

To ensure that students socially distance in libraries, Columbia requires that they reserve chairs in advance from a limited number of available spots. Students then must scan QR codes upon arrival, as if visiting a self-important uncle at a startup with an unclear mission, and limit their bookings to two-hour chunks. Yet despite the seemingly straightforward nature of the system, lawlessness abounds. Their most common crime? The infamous seat-steal. It’s the unbearable awkwardness of these chair-hopping encounters that turned Olson off from the libraries this year, limiting her academic inclinations with the prospect of public humiliation.

Olson was at NoCo one chilly winter afternoon when her allotted two hours expired, leaving her scrambling for another seat for three nauseating minutes before she spotted one behind her roommate. Well-schooled in seat-booking etiquette, she checked online to ensure that nobody had reserved it, then sat down confidently, but it was barely an hour before Olson found her studies interrupted by the most frightening of interjections: “Excuse me, but you’re in my seat.” There the girl stood, incriminating QR code in hand, while behind her sat a perfectly uninhabited chair just waiting to be warmed. It was there that she ultimately sat down, nice enough to spare Olson the humiliation of sweeping her pile of belongings haphazardly off the table and scooting four feet across the aisle. Though this exchange lasted less than a minute, Olson’s embarrassment multiplied exponentially as she witnessed others suffer similarly mortifying fates.

Illustration by Maya Weed

Olson remembers staying roughly an hour after the incident.“The whole time, I’m watching this other guy get moved around, because every time he sits in a seat, someone comes to take it from him,” she said. Meanwhile, she continued, “I’m sitting in a seat that’s not even mine.” “And then I leave around 3:30,” she laughed, overcome by retrospective glee, “and because I was sitting in the seat, she was sitting in somebody else’s.” Fifteen minutes after leaving, Olson received an ominous text from her roommate. It was just as she had feared: Someone had approached the girl and asked her to move.

Though Olson caused no enormous problems that day—remember, she had been granted express permission to seat-steal—she felt guilty about the situation, and the clumsiness of the entire experience struck her. Lauren Alcindor, ’CC 21, felt the same when she inadvertently stole my seat one night in Butler and politely suffered through my protracted monologue—it was my seat, but I could take another if she let me reach over her to scan the QR code.

“I didn’t realize I was in the wrong seat,” Alcindor said that evening, after I accosted her on her way out of the library. “I scanned the QR code and it didn’t go through, but I figured, ‘Oh, something is wrong with the system.’ And then when you came, it processed. ... Yeah, super awkward.”

Though the peculiar social mores of the pandemic era certainly characterized these encounters, uncomfortable library run-ins are nothing new. Indeed, the pre-Covid world had its own incarnation of seat-stealing, one that Olson described as “a little bit more entertaining.” In the cramped and unsterile days of yore, people had to get creative with their seat-saving and -stealing, intent on protecting or acquiring a sacred square of table space.

“Let’s say you were sitting somewhere and you wanted to get up to get a coffee or use the bathroom,” Olson remembered, nostalgically conjuring a maskless scene. “People would put the most random objects in their seats to claim their space. They would put their jacket, or sometimes they would just put a bag of chips to mark their territory. … Before, it was a free-for-all.”

We will hopefully soon return to whispered disputes over whether a shoelace or lollipop stick is a legitimate seat-saving device. For now, though, deck yourself in shining QR-code armor before venturing to Lehman, and prepare yourself for a very different—dare I say, distanced—battle for that most coveted library chair.


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