The Victorian information society: Surveillance, bureaucracy, and public librarianship in 19th-century Britain

Alistair Black

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 that play down historical continuities and herald the dawn of a new age. Such discourses ignore or reject historical evidence that points to the existence of past information societies, revolutions, and infrastructures denned, 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 article 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 businesslike, bureaucratic procedures described recently by business historians; and their panoptic tracking of users and their activities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)63-80
Number of pages18
JournalInformation Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Bureaucracy
  • Information society
  • Librarians
  • Librarianship
  • Library economy
  • Modernity
  • Panopticism
  • Public libraries
  • Surveillance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Management Information Systems
  • Cultural Studies
  • Information Systems
  • Political Science and International Relations


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