Winthrop University need not be defensive about its decision to limit public access to the school's Dacus Library. If some residents are peeved about the new policy, they should blame the small group of miscreants who used library computers to view pornography and engaged in other antisocial behavior.
As of Monday, anyone entering the library needed a Winthrop ID or the special approval of library officials. This ends the open-door policy in which anyone could enter the library without having to give a reason.
University officials were reluctant to bar anyone from the library. But the safety of students was the first priority.
Last year, Rock Hill police filed two incident reports at Dacus. This year, they filed 15. Of those, seven involved stolen bicycles, cell phones and money, and four involved incidents of public drunkenness or suspicious behavior in and around the library, including instances of public urination. In at least two cases, someone made harassing or threatening comments to people inside the library.
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The rise in incident reports is disturbing enough. But many incidents were handled internally and not reported to the police.
Internal files show numerous instances in which non-student visitors were commandeering computers to view porn on the Internet. Others would spend hours in the library ogling women students. Several students complained about feeling unsafe in their own college library.
Some critics have noted that Winthrop is a state-supported institution, so the public rightfully should have access to the library. But, once the budget is broken down, state support provides only about 20 percent of overall annual revenues (a figure that has declined steadily over the past decade), and students must pay an annual library fee.
While we agree the public should not be denied access altogether, students should get top priority. And the university has adopted a process by which non-students doing legitimate research, whose needs can't be met by the York County Library, can gain access to Dacus.
These problems are not confined to Winthrop's library. They are prevalent at most public libraries and, for that matter, at many public buildings everywhere. While these facilities are designed to serve the general public, the few who abuse that privilege, misuse equipment and intimidate fellow patrons can spoil the experience for everyone.
So far, Winthrop officials say they have received few complaints from the public about the new policy. Perhaps residents put themselves in the shoes of students who might be trying to study while a disheveled man at the next computer peruses the porn files.
Times change. As college libraries are able to expand access to materials that help students study for tests and write research papers, they also expand the possibilities for misusing the technology.
Sometimes the rules have to change to meet the cahllenges of a changing reality.