Privacy Matters: A Critique of Open Libraries

Privacy, Surveillance

By: Ross Sempek

I never thought that I would write about the erosion of privacy in libraries, but a recent piece published in American Libraries gave me pause. The print-article on self-service, or, open libraries, “Automatic for the People,” includes screen-grabs of security footage taken from an unstaffed library in Gwinnett County (Ga.). Now, I understand the rationale behind ensuring patrons’ safety, as well as protecting one’s inventory in an unstaffed library, but I still can’t deny the bad taste in my mouth. These optics alone are concerning, and I’m a bit vexed by the decision to visually associate libraries with surveillance. I’m afraid that libraries aren’t immune to the allure of technology, and this vulnerability has overshadowed a critical consideration of open-libraries’ implementation.

On one hand, I respect this unorthodox solution to break barriers to access. But on the other I feel that we must acknowledge the challenges that inevitably accompany novelty. Part of the rationale behind this cutting-edge approach is the need for such solutions that stretch government dollars; to do more with existing resources. To this end, Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries employ the ominously-named Sentry Isis system from Telepen, a British library contractor. But as is often the case, this method puts more responsibilities on existing library staff. The article cites that employees at remote branches will check-in on self-service patrons as closing time approaches, even to the point of identifying them publicly over an intercom.

“‘You, with the red shirt,’ or, ‘I see you, Jim!’”

Sam Wallin of the FVRL glosses over these quotes and all but dismisses their inherent weirdness in favor of their novel utility. Could you imagine doing this in a staffed library? It seems that the foundation of surveillance begets apropos behavior to ensure its efficacy. Wallin also states that the enthusiasm for these open libraries could spearhead their eventual replacement by full-service libraries. But given the extra overhead of building operations in addition to infrastructure maintenance and a third-party security contractor, why can’t municipal governments hire a few part-time librarians, or library security officers to do the same thing? Privacy concerns wouldn’t be exacerbated, and there are savings to be made in the omission or reduction of benefits coverage. This alternative is not ideal, but at least it employs a humanistic and local solution to dismantle barriers to access.

Many libraries already offer self-service kiosks in addition to a staffed circulation desk, and I consider this a nice blend of human and technological resources. However, the new open library paradigm veritably builds partitions between this harmony, and injects more moving parts to achieve what traditional outreach and grassroots politics would have in its stead. Librarianship is, if nothing else, a delicate and ongoing balancing act. Shifts in the profession need a counter-weight to achieve a prudent approach. At our contemporary pace of innovation, culture has a hard time keeping up with technology. And while this acknowledges the flaws inherent within our technological adoption, it also suggests the need to eliminate that discrepancy.

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.


  • Thank you for calling attention to this! I read that same article and was unsettled by the idea of watching patrons on camera and speaking to them via intercom. Or rather, the thought of *being* a patron in the library and having someone call me out on the intercom, suddenly realizing that invisible eyes had been watching me, is what I found so disturbing.

  • Thanks for the comment, Alex.

    It is disturbing, and doesn’t foster a level of comfort one expects from libraries. I’m not convinced this is a reasonable trade-off for increased access, but am heartened by patrons’ advocacy for increased hours.


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