Abstract - The Information Society 17(1)

The Victorian Information Society: Surveillance, Bureaucracy and Public Librarianship in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Alistair Black

Contrary to the ‘retro’ image often awarded them, and despite their continuing enthusiasm and responsibility for the organization of printed materials, librarians are upbeat about the prospects of an information society driven primarily by electronic technologies, but in which libraries can play an important part. Public librarians detect a natural correlation between the historic democratic mission of their institution and the increased accessibility made possible by digitalized sources. The library community’s acceptance of the information society idea as a ‘given’ social phenomenon supports discourses which play down historical continuities and herald the dawn of a new age. Such discourses ignore or reject historical evidence which points to the existence of past information societies, revolutions and infrastructures defined, in part, by the operation of indirect surveillance, constituted by the bureaucratic information systems of modernity. Victorian Britain serves as a good example of an early information society, to which public libraries, themselves micro-information societies, contributed significantly. The role played by public librarians in the Victorian information society, illustrated in this paper by evidence drawn from the contemporary library press, is seen in their preoccupation with the surveillance and ordering of knowledge; their adoption for library operations of the business-like, bureaucratic procedures described recently by business historians; and their panoptic tracking of users and their activities.

View Full Text | Subscribe Online


Back | TIS Home