Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Norms and Library Security Systems: The Library as Panopticon

A thought experiment, if you will. It's 2am. It's late, you're tired. You're driving in a residential neighborhood not too far from home. It's deserted. You come to a stop sign. Do you stop?
STOP - Hammer Time

If so, do you stop because it's the right thing to do, are you governed by the logic of appropriateness, or do you stop because you fear getting caught, the logic of consequences? Or is it a combination?

Scholars James March and Johan Olsen define the former logic as
a perspective that sees human action as driven by rules of appropriate or exemplary behavior, organized into institutions. Rules are followed because they are seen as natural, rightful, expected, and legitimate. Actors seek to fulfill the obligations encapsulated in a role, an identity, a membership in a political community or group, and the ethos, practices and expectations of its institutions. (pdf)
While the logic of appropriateness is sociological and ideational (are you the "kind of person" who stops at a stop sign?), the logic of consequences is economic and rationalist, concerned with achieving goals that are often defined by materialist worldviews ("I wish to avoid an accident and a speeding ticket."). Note that at times these two logics compete, but at others they are complementary.

Here's why I ask about stop sign behavior. Last month our patron counter broke, which meant no more gate counts. Two weeks later, the library security gates broke. We have an older system in which these two functions are part of one structure, which makes replacement an expensive proposition. How expensive? This expensive. For a small library that didn't budget for this, it's a tremendous outlay.

But is it a necessary one? Thanks to the above logics, and the norms they propagate, does a library need a security system? Do enough patrons behave appropriately, and fear the consequences of inappropriate behavior, that a security system is irrelevant? And will the people who steal library materials, or "borrow" them without first checking out, find a way to take what they want from a library regardless of the state of library security?

The library security system is not quite a stop sign. Think of it more as a traffic light, with a red light camera attached. If you run the light, the camera goes off, takes a picture of your license plate, and mails you a ticket. If you take materials out of the library without them being desensitized, a sensor goes off, staff inspects your belongings, and you are perhaps shamed as other people stop to watch this spectacle. A neutered security system, however, is a stop sign. There is no enforcement mechanism without a functioning sensor beyond the norm that stealing is wrong. It operates within the logic of appropriateness. And yet the physical structure of the gate is still there; most patrons may not realize that the gate sensors do not work. The library security system has become a panopticon. It offers the illusion of consequences as a form of domination and control.


The above image is a prison designed by utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, never built. However, its design has influenced a number of modern structures.

A guard tower in the middle of this Cuban prison allows for unobstructed views of all inmates, while shielding the guard from their eyes. In fact, a guard need not be present. This is our library security system, albeit in extreme form. Will the inmates, or patrons, realize that the emperor has no clothes? Until we can find the funds for a new library security system, we'll find out, relying on a broken security gate as a panoptic system of control to prevent library theft.

Our library contains approximately 214,000 items that circulate in one form or another. The far majority of these are out of date, relics of a time when the school was a women-only college, not a co-ed university. In the 2011-12 fiscal year, July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012, 10,613 items circulated. Of these items, fifty-six (56) are labeled lost or missing. For the purposes of this exercise, I code those materials as stolen. Starting on November 1, 2012, I will begin a count of missing and lost items, ending when, and if, I suppose, we get a functioning security system, and I will report the finding in this space.


  1. Before the sensors went on the fritz, was there a consistent response when the alarms went off?

    It'll be interesting to see what you find, but it makes me wonder about theft rates at my library. We have two entrances -- one in sight of the circulation desk and one in sight of a sometimes-staffed help desk. We do have working sensors. We do not always have the staff to deal with it when the sensors go off.

    It's not uncommon for a person here to walk through the gates, hear the alarm go off, pause, look back, see that nobody has time to pay them any attention, and just keep walking. Sometimes they'll turn around and come back to the desk, but nobody has time to chase them down if they don't.

    I guess a lot of our students tend to roll through stop signs when nobody is around to see them. The question is whether that translates to theft or whether those instances are just a matter of items not being desensitized at checkout?

    1. Yes, there was a consistent response. I think you're right to question my coding of theft, and even what constitutes it. It's admittedly a crude metric.

  2. Thanks to the above logics, and the norms they propagate, does a library need a security system.I really like your blog and have one with similar information. If you have time check it out.
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  3. What would you say about getting security gates in Vancouver? Would that work out better?

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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