The Panoptic principle and information access in UK public libraries

Robinson, Elaine; (2016) The Panoptic principle and information access in UK public libraries. In: 24th BOBCATSSS Conference Proceedings & Abstracts. Enssib, Villeurbanne, France, pp. 459-464. ISBN 9782375460146

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The Panopticon is a type of prison, envisaged by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century. It is a building that allows maximum surveillance of inmates, without them being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. The fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, noted that the panoptic method of surveillance can be seen in various aspects of life, including schools, hospitals and other institutions. Since the panoptic principle's inception, its application to surveillance theory has been widely adopted into various areas of study, however, surveillance in libraries and its relation to the panoptic principle have been mostly limited to discussions which focus on public libraries in the Victorian era. Thusly, this study sought to find out more about surveillance in public libraries, and whether any sort of panoptic principle is exhibited. This was done through the language analysis of public library Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) and how much language is devoted to caring and controlling aspects of surveillance: it has been suggested that surveillance is not intrinsically good or bad, but operates on a spectrum from “care” to “control”. Public library AUPs from 30 random English councils were selected. It was apparent that despite stemming from the desire to care for the patrons of the public library, the AUPs use a high amount of language that is controlling in nature. The use of this language coupled with surveillance techniques used in the public library such as the Internet filter and actual surveillance of computers by library staff has interesting implications regarding panoptic theory. This suggested that much of the surveillance of patrons in public libraries is controlling in nature and because the public library patron has to necessarily adapt their behavior to use the public library computer the public library does therefore exhibit aspects of the panoptic principle. That is, it uses methods of both overt and covert surveillance to curb library users' behavior to what it deems is acceptable. An online survey of library staff was also carried out to find out attitudes towards surveillance in libraries. Whilst it was noted that striking a balance between protecting patrons, individual privacy and freedom of access can be difficult, library staff generally see surveillance as a necessary tool to protect their patrons noting that the public library is a shared space, and paid for with public resources. There was concern however, that sometimes the line between protection and censorship can be crossed, as it is not always easy to tell where the line is. The public library embodies the idea of free and uninhibited access to information. If it is apparent that these institutions are, in actual fact, restricting this access, this has serious implications for the public's access to information.


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