The privacy of the library (as a public space)

(Sturges, Iliffe et al. 2001) recognise that “The library, whether public, academic or institutional, is both a communal and a private space: a paradox that has always contained a certain potential for tensions.” They acknowledge that privacy is even less possible in the digital library than it is in the print library.

(Campbell, Cowan 2016) also acknowledge that privacy can have a paradoxical relation to the public sphere. They cite (Keizer 2012) who suggests that individuals frequently move into the public sphere, not to sacrifice their privacy, but to retain it. Indeed, in an analysis of a court decision that grappled with the question of privacy in public places, Keizer writes of “the number of people whose very act of stepping out the front door represents a “subjective expectation of privacy”—because the public sphere is the only place where they can have a reasonable hope of finding it”.

As Campbell says, the “library occupies a position of significant though paradoxical importance: its status as a public place makes it an ideal place in which to experience genuine privacy”. Referring to the concept of “open inquiry”, Campbell says that it “consists of the freedom to inquire, unrestricted by familial, communal, or tribal obligations”. Indeed Keizer suggests that “The public sphere may well be the most important factor in an individual’s quest to use information sources to explore and articulate a sexual identity with a reasonable expectation of privacy”.

The idea of open inquiry only being achieved in the privacy of the public sphere may seem like a contradiction in terms. But a teenager exploring their sexuality might well turn to the library on the basis that they crave the privacy offered by (the library as) a public space. They may well use it to look up references that would give some validity to the feelings inside them which marks them out as being somehow different. They might begin by looking up words in dictionaries, before moving on to finding both descriptions and images that they can identify with as being of other people just like them.  (Curry 2005) cites Steven Joyce whose dissertation notes that many youths still living at home may be reluctant to undertake web research on their home computer, preferring instead the anonymity and safety of the public library.

(Floridi 2014a) cites a Pew Internet & American Life project on “Teens, privacy and online social networks”. For youth, “privacy” is not a singular variable. Different types of information are seen as more or less private; choosing what to conceal or reveal is an intense and ongoing process. Rather than viewing a distinct division between “private” and “public”, young people view social contexts as multiple and overlapping”. Indeed, the very distinction between “public” and “private” is problematic for many young people, who tend to view privacy in more nuanced ways, conceptualizing internet spaces as “semi-public” or making distinctions between different groups of “friends”.

Reasonable expectation of privacy (public v private place)

The question inevitably arises as to whether one can have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. For (Campbell, Cowan 2016) “the public sphere may well be the most important factor in an individual’s quest to use information sources to explore and articulate a sexual identity with a reasonable expectation of privacy”.

(Gorman 2015) cites Gabriel Garcia Marquez who told us we all have three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life; and that as far as the public life was concerned, that it was open to the world, an environment in which there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Brandeis believed that people are entitled to reasonable expectations of privacy. (Mirmina 2016) says that this view leads to some interesting questions, and she tries to ask what Brandeis would have made of modern day issues in light of the technology that is available to us so many years after the famous (Warren, Brandeis 1890)  article.

In a landmark 1967 case, Katz v United States (389 US 347), the US Supreme Court found that a warrantless police recording device attached to the outside of a telephone booth violated the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. This protection had formerly been construed primarily in cases involving intrusion into a physical place, but in Katz (at 351) the justices famously held that the Fourth Amendment “protects people, not places.”