SeatEd, study spaces, and suffering: The Covid library experience
Pretty sure the app is run by some mute, sun-deprived, loincloth-sporting goblin
If you’ve gone to the Main Library this year, in our Brave New World beset by a pandemic which needs no introduction, odds are you’ve found yourself in the following situation.
You’re at home, and find yourself enraptured by a sudden burst of motivation (or you have a paper due tomorrow that you’ve not started). Do you work at home, lying in your bed, surrounded by that week’s refuse and unwashed wine glasses, or do you head to the library and immerse yourself in the focusing aura of the book stacks and keyboards tapping away?
The decision seems easy. So, you pull out your phone and log into the SeatEd app and try booking a desk for 11AM.
SeatEd will happily provide you with desks available for 11AM, and give you your choice of five desks, and five only. Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes, it will suggest spaces whose availability ends at 11AM. Or begins at 9AM. Or ends at 5PM. After all, we’re only human.
I would not, however, be surprised to learn that the app is run by some mute, sun-deprived, loincloth-sporting goblin in a cobblestone dungeon deep, deep beneath George Square.
Anyway, let’s assume you get the proper booking for the proper time. Great. You head to the library, make straight for the lift, only to find that it’s on level five or there’s a line of other students wishing to spare themselves the trek up multiple flights of stairs. I’m built different, you tell yourself, and then arrive on the fourth floor via stair, angry and sweaty. You navigate the labyrinthine system of colours, numbers, and curious names until you find your desk, Pickle Ulaanbaatar.
Only to find, to your dismay, someone is sat in your seat.
How could this be? That’s your desk. Is it possible that you were misled by a hastily-constructed and faulty app? Is it possible that someone else struggled with this app and out of frustration simply sat in an open desk? Your desk?
You are now presented with two options. One, you can politely tell the person that desk is yours, watch as they feign surprise, and then linger awkwardly near them as they pack up their belongings. Two, you can remove yourself from the situation, and simply steal another open desk, as they did. And so the cycle continues.
This, indeed, was the situation I was put in the day I first began writing this article. When I arrived at my desk someone else was sitting there; I would have asked them to move were it not for the fact that the SeatEd app no longer recognised my booking and would not let me check into the desk when it was within sight. Quickly, I sat at a random available desk, was promptly confronted by a member of staff, and threatened with removal from the premises if I did not book another study space properly and move.
Upset, yet relenting, I did so, and after being followed by this punctilious staff member and her comrade to my new desk, I found myself again unable to check into it, the app telling me in rage-inducing red lettering that someone else had booked it. How nice, I thought. I am going to sit here now.
I would soon be asked to move once again by the student who had booked that desk.
If this article has proven to be one you find yourself unable to relate to, well, that’s all very good and nice for you. Maybe the app isn’t as terrible as I seem to make it out? Perhaps I should try booking a study space right now?
Here, you can see the parameters I’ve set, I want a desk for Thursday, 3rd December, for two hours starting at 10AM. Now let’s see what choices SeatEd, in its infinite wisdom, has provided me.
Hm. Well, no. Typically, when I say I want to do something at 10AM, I mean 10AM, and not five hours earlier. Let’s proceed to our other options.
This particular booking ends 45 minutes before my desired start time. Again, useless.
This equally-as-unhelpful booking begins two hours after my apparently elusive 10AM start time. This is also true for the next two bookings the app provided, all beginning at 12:10PM. With that being said, I won’t bother showing them.
I won’t bother showing them. This must be the thought that passes through SeatEd’s computer brain when I inform it of the times that would be most convenient for me. You also cannot seriously tell me that every single desk in the Main Library has been booked, as I’ve been presented with such nonsensical choices before, gone to the library anyway, and sat within sight of a desk that remained empty for the entirety of my stay.
Among the Edinburgh University students I’ve spoken with, this has been more-or-less a universal experience. Our university has succeeded in creating one of the most confusing, unintuitive, and contemptible systems for reserving study spaces I’ve had the misfortune of using.
In a poll I conducted on my own Instagram story, nearly 85 per cent of student respondents expressed disapproval of the SeatEd app and general post-COVID organisation of the library. As I wrote this article, I overheard two girls sitting across from me complain about the inefficiency of the system.
That being said, there is an overwhelming contempt for the current system, and so far, the university has failed to address it. I admire the university’s efforts in keeping the library open and providing students with its resources and study spaces, but I stop short of holding it in high esteem when its poor implementation has the result of discouraging use of these spaces.
Why would I want to study in a place where I am constantly worrying about if the person who slows down behind me is going to ask me for my seat? Why would I want to write an essay in a place where finding my assigned space is more of a hassle than actually writing the essay?
I cannot help but think that a better system would be one in which students are to check into or book a desk only upon their arrival. In other words, we would be free to sit in any socially-distanced and unoccupied desk we see, without need for hunting down Horsehair Zagreb or invoking the wrath of the lanyard-toting Seat Police. The infrastructure to scan QR codes is already there, so why not just use that?
The only reason I can think of for the university not opting for this system is not being able to monitor capacity but I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to keep an eye on it through the scanning of QR codes as students claim desks. If they’re worried about students hanging out at the library, as all cool and rebellious kids are naturally inclined to do, then that sounds like a perfect assignment for our diligent corps of Seat Police.
Of course, one could argue that reserving desks in advance is a decent way of ensuring you have a space when you arrive at the library, and I would agree with you. That is a good idea, in theory, yet, theories are theories, and when the system doesn’t work, neither can I! I implore the university to either fix the procedure it currently has in place, or better yet, do away with it entirely.
Until then, it would seem I am forever confined to being a stateless wanderer in this sea of study spaces.