Tragedy of the Commons

In talking with a friend of mine, the phrase “Tragedy of the Commons” came up. The idea of a commons comes from the old practice of a community sharing a common pasture. The tragedy plays out because of this: Everyone must agree to take care of the commons, but anyone can destroy it. The library is truly a modern day commons. There is no single reason for using the library; people use it for their own, specific needs. Some need a quiet space to just sit and think. Others need a place to meet, to socialize, to gather with like minded people. Still others seek difference: different ideas, different viewpoints, different perspectives. Some seek personal enrichment, specialized knowledge while others want to escape the demands of everyday life in a book or a video. Many, I’m convinced, come because they can find a friendly, knowledgeable, helpful staff person.

But what about the minority who seek to destroy the commons? The library spends a lot of time and money trying to deal with those who would destroy it. I separate these people into two categories: the overt and the unconscious. In some ways the overt destroyers are the easiest to deal with. These are the vandals who would deface and destroy property. They seem to get their kicks this way. I don’t understand it, but I know of ways to deter it. The library has had security cameras installed for quite a while now and occasionally removed things which seem to tempt the vandals such as paper towels in restrooms that can be used to clog sinks and toilets. When the destroyers realize the library is no longer fun for them they move on and we put the things back. Kind of like teaching small children.

The unconscious destroyers are a different matter. These are the people who are oblivious to how their actions affect others. They do not stop to think, or they don’t care. People who talk loudly in the library. People who don’t turn off their cell phones or, worse, insist on carrying out a conversation every time it rings, right where they are. Usually this conversation consists primarily of “Can you hear me? I’m in the library!”

Others smoke in the entry ways, forcing everyone else to walk through their smoke to enter the building whether they wish to or not. But what about my rights? they scream. Forcing your behavior and the results of your behavior on others is not a right, it is being rude. The Library staff spends a lot of time dealing with this difficult issue. Staff patrol the library, taking them away from the work they were hired to perform. All this I think could be relieved with another sort of common: common courtesy. Let’s do a little thinking about how we affect others for a change, not just in the library, but everywhere. Wouldn’t that make the world around us a more pleasant place?

About the author

Paul Paladino

Paul Paladino

Paul is the Montrose Library District Director