The various means which House librarians have devised to detect the loss and to secure the return of books illegally taken from the shelves are, for the most part, reasonable and effective alternativs to a turnstile system. But in the case of at least one House, the method in use deserves close inspection.
That system has proved eminently successful. If a volume is lost, the head librarian compiles a list of all men who are entered in the course which uses the book. Undergraduate assistant librarians are then despatched, armed with keys, to make a thorough search of the quarters of the course members. The investigation is carried out independently by the assistants: there are no officers of the University present; the tenants are not consulted. During the current year, the House in question has recovered every missing book.
From a strictly legal point of view, the undergraduate has no grounds for complaint. The University owns his room; the tenancy contract stipulates no guarantee against search. And if there were desperate need for such a general search, if it were carried on by an officer of the University in the presence of the tenant there could be no justifiable ground for any objection. But the example of other Houses demonstrates that lost books can be successfully recovered without recourse to the general search. It is, furthermore, inexcusable to permit irresponsible undergraduates covertly to ransack a fellow House member's quarters. To innocent tenants such an intrusion represents a complete negation of privacy. The performance of the malodorous office may conceivably react tragically upon the character and outlook of a youthful and malleable agent; to those less scrupulous it will present the opportunity of a life-time.
The method of general search must not be confused with that more specific means of recovery which is used when the assistant visiting a room in order to secure a volume for which the occupant signed during the preceding evening. In this case there is definite responsibility, and such a method is essential to good library management during times of stress.
But the system which provides for an indiscriminate ransacking of rooms by undergraduates deserves condemnation from every thinking man. It is irresponsible. It is a public nuisance. It is the precise denial of every customary concept of dignity and privacy. Pragmatically, it becomes futile, once its operation becomes known. Its use is a strong argument for a close unified control over the management of House libraries.