How UNC students get themselves trapped after late-night studying

By Hannah Rosenberger

Patrick Dickinson had one minute and two multiple choice questions left on a timed assessment for his public policy class when his friend, Mikayla Cummings, popped her head back into their fourth-floor study room at the Health Sciences Library. 

“By the way,” she said, “we’re locked in the library.”

Dickinson didn’t even read the last two questions before clicking random answers and hoping for the best so he could shut his laptop and follow her back downstairs. 

A few minutes earlier, Cummings had taken the elevator down to the ground floor, ready to head out for the night. But she was stopped by a sign stating that unfortunately, the doors were now locked, and she would have to call UNC-Chapel Hill police to be released. 

The library didn’t look closed. There were some empty study rooms – but that wasn’t unusual in a space like the Health Sciences Library, where it’s always easy to find a seat, especially late on a Wednesday night. The lights were all still on, except for one dark fixture above the circulation desk. They hadn’t even heard the customary 30-minute warning announcement. 

The only indication that Cummings was now bolted in with the books was the absence of circulation supervisor Ernest Peters at the desk by the front door, telling her good night. 

Peters works evenings in the Health Sciences Library, making his rounds through the six floors of the library every hour or so. As he keeps track of the number of people in the building, he does his best to remind those deep in the thralls of their medical textbooks that it’s almost closing time. But he can’t always catch all of the straggling students before he shuts the doors for the night.

“It usually happens at the beginning of the semester, people don’t realize what’s going on,” Peters said. “And then they get locked in, and they have to call the number on the door and then (UNC-Chapel Hill police) comes in and gets them out of here.” 

‘Pushing it to the limit’

Just a few weeks after he and Cummings were shut in at Health Sciences, Dickinson was in a study room on the seventh floor of Davis Library when the warning announcement played over the loudspeaker: the library would close in 15 minutes.

Several floors below, the crowd of nighttime students began to rouse from their homework-induced dazes of concentration. Flocks of people pushed open the exit doors as the ground floor slowly emptied. A few last-minute loiterers jogged down the bottom few steps from the second floor as a librarian held the side door open. 

But Dickinson didn’t budge from his seat. He had an assignment to submit, and he wanted to get it over with before heading back to his room for the night.

“I was pushing it to the limit,” he said. 

He hit the button to call the elevator at 9:57 p.m., and just as he heard the rumble and ding of its arrival, he also heard the disembodied loudspeaker voice announce that the library doors were now locked.  

Dickinson’s elevator stopped on every floor to pick up another person or two. As the dozen or so students who had shoved their way in during its descent tumbled into the lobby, there was already a security officer waiting outside the doors to release the dawdlers.

UNC Police Sgt. James David said campus police get calls to let students out of the libraries — usually Davis — at least a few times a week. For years, there’s been a huge whiteboard sign by the circulation desk with a message — “Locked in? 862-8100” — written on it in slightly faded black Expo marker, for just these occasions.

“People will walk by, and they’ll laugh,” said DeMarcus Taylor, who works at the Davis Library circulation desk. “They’re like, ‘Oh, can you imagine getting locked in?’ But it happens.”

The number of lurkers lingering at the library until closing time has been higher so far this semester. Staff hours across most campus libraries have been limited because of COVID-19 employee shortages.

Pre-pandemic, the Undergraduate Library was open 24 hours a day for those dedicated souls who had the stamina to cram for their midterms at 4 a.m. Even last semester, the Health Sciences Library normally shut its doors at midnight — not 8 p.m., like it did on the night Cummings and Dickinson were locked in. Even Davis Library is usually open until 2 a.m., not 10 p.m.

“Seeing the swarm of people come out of the elevator from like now to 10,” DeMarcus said just a few minutes before Davis closed for the night, “It’s a whole lot more than at 2 a.m.”

‘Kind of our luck’

Half an hour later, Cummings and Dickinson watched through a double set of sliding doors at the Health Sciences Library as a security officer fumbled with a massive keychain. 

Dickinson had already gone to the bathroom and trekked back up to the fourth floor to grab a pencil he’d left behind before the officer arrived. Cummings could see the hazard lights of her boyfriend’s Toyota Camry parked across Columbia Street through the glass.

The dozens, if not hundreds, of keys jangled as the officer tried to find the one that opened the back door by the café. Eventually, the right key clicked into the lock.

Cummings and Dickinson made their way back out into the world, and with a nod, the officer left.

“It’s kind of our luck,” Cummings said. “Of course that’s what happened.”

Edited by Morgan Chapman and PJ Morales