ASSOCIATES (2006, July, v. 13, no. 1) -

The Big Bang!


Jim Jackson
University of Exeter

It looked like another long day for Kelly as she walked up the path to the library back entrance. Kelly Bourne was about the brightest thing there was in what was known locally as the ‘Heart Break’ library. Its proper name was the Wellingborough University Library, but only visitors called it that. It was known as the Heart Break library for two reasons: One, the Audio Visual librarian loved Elvis music, and had many arguments with senior management over how loud he played it in the AV department. The other reason was the library was built in the early 1960’s when concrete was all the fashion and the end result was a concrete bunker which staff said was enough to break the heart of anyone entering in it!

Kelly had worked at the Library for twelve years now and was known for her happy disposition and love of bright colours. Today was no exception as she was wearing her brightest colours, multicolour leggings and a bright pink sweatshirt. 'Who cares about colour coordination?' she thought to herself.

Kelly worked on the first floor on the Main Issue desk, dealing with all manner of problems and requests. In fact staff and students regarded her alike as being a bit of ‘an angel’. Any sobbing or hysterical student or staff member even, were directed her way to sort out their problems which she often did by making a few phone calls, clearing fines and generally talking to people. Her senior managers could never understand why she bothered but were content in that she solved problems quickly and calmly.

Kelly Bourne was feeling tired despite the fact it was still early in the morning. She had a number of important tasks to do today, the first being the attendance at a security briefing for all public access buildings. This was to discuss a spate of recent thefts from both students and staff. These were not just the regular thefts of an occasional purse or mobile phone. These seemed to be carefully planned thefts of lap-top computers and iPods, as well as credit cards. So having checked that all her usual staff were in she said ‘I’m off to a security meeting – see you all in about an hour’.

Kelly then walked to the University administration building for the meeting. The administration building was called The Graham building after a local businessman who gave the University a huge donation many years ago. When giving directions to people it was often referred to as the ‘building that looks like a spaceship’ as it had a huge glass fronted sixth floor, which housed the University Academic Staff Club. It had magnificent views over the local countryside and senior academics loved using it for lunch and special marketing and publicity events. Not that Kelly ever had lunch there, not on her salary!! She was surprised to see so many people attending, several of whom were from the University’s security office. The meeting started with a general briefing about security on campus, how difficult it was and what sort of CCTV coverage there was. The University security officer said there were concerns at the number of false alarms for the fire brigade that there had been of late, and the increase in thefts. Careful examination of CCTV footage from several buildings had shown that some familiar faces were in the crowds. Familiar because they had been banned from all buildings and grounds, and been arrested and convicted on many occasions for thefts of a whole range of items.

‘It seems’ he said ‘that these people have combined together and formed a cooperative of thieves. What’s worrying is that they seem to be recruiting new people we don’t recognise and have developed a novel way of clearing a building. We have it on good authority that the next building to be chosen for this new type of theft is the University Library’.

At this point Kelly’s attention, which had been slipping, raced back to full attention, and the look on her Deputy Librarian’s face went a whiter shade of pale.

‘How do think we can combat this – the library is open to all?‘ said Kelly.

The University Security officer said ‘Clearly with great difficulty but we looking at ways which the University as whole will have to consider.’

The Deputy Librarian as ever mindful of his budget, said ‘How much is this going to cost me or is the university prepared to help pay for what you are about to suggest’.

‘That depends on how far we want to go’ was the answer he got, and what he feared, as it indicated that he would have to at least pay for part of any improvements.

Kelly asked ‘Have there been any incidents at other libraries of this sort, and how do they plan to empty the building and steal things?’ The rather shocking reply was that there had been other incidents which when considered together showed a clear plan. Two or three people would enter a library and settle themselves down and appear to work, while looking around study areas for valuables. These would be the people who were not known to the authorities, while another member of the group would be nearby waiting to set off a fire alarm. Those inside would send a simple text message via mobile phone saying what was seen. Extensive CCTV did not generally cover the library stairwells so someone could easily hide there for a period of time without arousing suspicion. The fire alarm goes off – people leave in a hurry, and our two thieves simply pick up anything valuable they have targeted as they leave the building via a fire escape. Thus avoiding the library security system and incoming fire or security people.

‘Well’ said Kelly. ‘You have got to admit it's simple and clever. I guess we will just have to think about how to combat this’.

‘We could of course’ said the Deputy Librarian, with a smile on his face, ‘use some of the University grant money for refurbishing the front of the library later this year to install swipe card enter barriers on the main entrance. Visitors could be signed in, any one claiming to be a student or staff would have to show ID before being given access. That way it does not appear that we know about this possible new way of stealing to order and can combat other petty thefts from outside the University. It’s not perfect but does seem a workable idea’.

The University Registrar who had been silent during the discussion said ‘I think we need to discuss this further as it has wide implications for general public access but in principle it seems the best idea at the moment, anyone any other ideas?’

Kelly was stunned by this idea, and suspected that this plan for swipe card entry had been thought of before but the cost implications had prevented the library from installing something like it. Now the University not the library would end up paying for most of it. The meeting then continued for a short while to discuss other vulnerable buildings, but Kelly was already thinking about when all this might happen. The meeting finished with requests for costing and arrangements for the possible implementation of the proposed ideas.

Kelly returned to the Library full of various thoughts and then tried to think about her more immediate problems. As one of the most experienced people working on the circulation desk she had a number of extra duties, one of which was to allocate research study rooms. With ‘rooms’ being a rather grand word for what were in fact very small study areas, able to take a table, a chair, lamp and very small notice board. Access to these was via a small lockable door. These areas had been a considerable source of conflict for some time now and things were getting worse. Demand for them had been increasing but the number available had not.

All these thoughts were going through her mind as she entered the lift in the basement of the ‘Heart Break’ library. She pressed 1 and started chatting to the other occupants of the lift. Suddenly there was a loud scratching sound, of metal scratching against metal, followed by an equally loud ‘Bang ’! The lift stopped suddenly with a jolt.

‘Ah great’ said Kelly, ‘that’s just what we all wanted and need’. There were stories that the lift had a ‘mind’ of its own, and these were supported by the fact that the lift sometimes announced ‘level 1- door opening’ when in fact it was on level 2. This often caused confusion to those unaware of where they were.

Kelly’s old friend Brian laughed and said ‘No problem--push the emergency alarm bell, and call for help’. He also tried his mobile phone, but found he had no signal.

Ten minutes later there was no sign of rescue and Kelly said ‘I have not got all day for this’ and banged very loudly on the doors. This got an almost instant response from outside.

‘Who’s there – what level are you on?’

‘It’s Kelly Bourne and several others and I think we are near level 1’.

‘Hang on’ said the voice. ‘Hang on’ muttered Kelly, ‘what else can I do!’

About five minutes later the voice returned and said ‘We are going to manually lower the lift to the next floor below, it might take a while but we are starting now. ’ About 20 minutes later the lift stopped its slow decent and the outer doors started opening very slowly, inch by inch. Then the inner doors opened by the same amount. As rescues go it was not very dramatic, but it was welcome none the less. However the lift was not level with the floor it had stopped at and as the doors opened it was clearly several feet below the floor. As Kelly looked out the lift she could only see the bottom half of someone’s body, and their smart black shoes. Kelly was given a lift up to climb out the lift and crawled out the lift and was greeted by her Librarian who said ‘Ah there you are – hope you are ok’.

‘Thanks’ said Kelly through gritted teeth and with clear sarcasm. ‘That lift is a liability and needs a complete overhaul and repair’ she added getting into her stride with anger boiling up inside her.

‘I agree’ said the Librarian ‘lets have a meeting to discuss this sometime’.

The only response from Kelly as she left was ‘Huhh. I am going for a coffee.’

Having calmed down after the morning Kelly returned to her work and her usual self. She still had loads of work to do. After lunch she was working on the allocation of the study rooms, and the library was full of students and staff. For the second time that day an even louder ‘Bang!’ was heard, this time throughout the library. This was seconds later followed by the sound of the fire alarm and the smell of smoke. Was this what they had discussed on this morning, Kelly wondered? A general exodus started, and Kelly ensured that all her staff left and waited in the safety zones outside the library. These were designed to accommodate all the occupants from the building, in case of emergency. A few minutes later the distant sound of emergency vehicles could be heard approaching. When the fire brigade arrived they carefully entered the building unsure of what they would find. The fire sensor panels by the front entrance indicated the problem was confined to an upper level postgraduate area. A team wearing breathing apparatus walked through the building. The smoke was clearing as the emergency extractors started working and damage seemed slight.

Minutes later they found the cause of the bang and small fire that had followed, it was located in one of the study areas, and one of the rooms had its door blown off its hinges. The police were called as it was clearly arson and would need investigating. So the library was closed for the rest of the day. Small groups were allowed back in to collect personal items but no one was allowed to stay.

First thing next morning Kelly was asked to attend a meeting with the Librarian, some senior fire and police officers, and of course the University Safety officer. She was asked if she knew why someone would want to set fire to one of the study areas.

‘Well’ said Kelly ‘there has been a lot of trouble with the study areas of late. Students have to share them, and some are good at sharing, some are not.’ She continued ‘There have also been problems with students having opposing political or religious views, and some of the debates have become really extreme of late’.

The Librarian thought for a moment, and then said ‘It seems that yesterday's events have their roots in the allocation of study rooms. Are you working on this problem?’

‘I am trying to re-allocate at the moment but it is very difficult with some of the more extreme students we have, and their different life styles’.

The Librarian turned his attention to the other people in the room and said ‘What do you recommend?’

The University Safety Officer said ‘If we know the cause of the problem, and it's getting worse, then I suggest you get rid of the cause. This may affect others but improve overall safety, which is what we want and need.’

The Librarian turned to Kelly and paused before he spoke, ‘How would you feel about closing the study areas and what would you do with the new space from them?’

Kelly thought and then replied ‘It would save me a huge amount of time, the conflict areas would be removed, and the areas re-used as group work areas. I think it could work, but there would be a backlash from other students and departments’.

‘I’ll handle the political side of things; you handle the other practical arrangements,’ said the Librarian.

The police officer said ‘We now have a report, which you might like to hear. We have interviewed a number of students and we think we know what happened. It seems one of the students activated a ‘thunder flash’ stun grenade in the study area. On activation it set off the fire alarms. The enclosed space meant the blast force blew off the door. ’

Meanwhile the Librarian had been on the telephone to the University Registrar, a man of immense power and authority who would be needed to support any plans for changes of the sort that had been proposed. He turned to Kelly and said ‘What I suggest is that the effected study rooms are removed as part of the redecoration process, and the others remain for the time being, while we find out what lead up to this’.

‘Seems good to me’, said Kelly.

About a week later Kelly was again asked to attend another meeting to discuss the outcomes of the investigation. The same people attend as before but time the University Registrar also attend. The police reported that they had interviewed the students who used the effected study rooms and it became apparent that both had radically different political and religious beliefs and actively antagonised each other. This reached the stage where one had decided to, in his words “settle a score” with the other student. So he had rigged up a trip wire to the study door, so that when the door opened it was activated. The police were looking into charges of assault, but were worried that this might make him a ‘martyr’. However the University Registrar said that the University would take disciplinary action, and he would ask for the student’s removal.

Kelly was told that in future the study areas were to be removed in total, and the areas re-used as general group rooms, and extra IT resources rooms. It had been the most dangerous incident in the library’s history and demonstrated the difficulty of having so many students of differing backgrounds. As for the idea of the swipe card entrance, that would now also be considered as a matter of priority. Kelly could see that this would create lots of problems when people lost their cards or forgot to bring them, but it did have some extra benefits. Perhaps, she wondered, we could link it to the library’s circulation system, so that persistent offenders could be identified as they came in. Now there was an idea she liked!

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