The Panopticon is a type of institutional building designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century, whose purpose was to allow all prison inmates to be seen by one watchman at all times. This was achieved by having the cells arranged in a circular structure around a tower from which the watchman would see their every move. It was a somewhat disturbing concept, its major effect (writes Foucault in Discipline and Punish), being ‘to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.’
It’s been a long-running joke among Cambridge students that the Seeley Historical Library is basically a panopticon. Photographic proof:
It was unsurprising then that a significant part of our visit consisted of Linda, the Seeley Librarian, telling us about the strengths and weaknesses of working in this building (its wikipedia page explains: Although the building was admired by students of architecture it is less well regarded by those who have to work in it). Winters are very cold and summers are very hot — and the Seeley being a listed building means that any changes that would mitigate this would be incredibly expensive. All new furniture would need to be identical to the old one. And also, yes, the library had been built so that the librarian can see all students in it at all times, and also so that the rest of the faculty corridors and rooms open towards the library. We were told this helps students see how busy the library is or if they friends are there working, but I remember finding it impossible to work in there as an undergrad, having more people than books at eye-level.
Speaking of books, the Seeley has an impressive collection. It holds relevant volumes for the History Faculty, but also the Latin American Studies and the POLIS (Politics and International Studies) collections, since the Seeley had more resources to maintain these than their respective faculties. In this context, Linda talked to us about something I hadn’t really considered before, future-proofing libraries. This means that their collection is managed with a view to keeping the library ready for relocation, incorporation and any other changes that it may go through in the future.
This concern is also obvious in their collection development, which Linda, Paul and Nevenka talked us through. They collaborate with the faculty on reading lists for students, making sure they purchase what the students need while avoiding too much overlap with the UL collection; they prefer ebooks to print copies since they can be accessed by more than one person at the same time; but they also bear in mind the differences in how readers use print versus digital, and how for certain books print is overwhelmingly favoured. Another way to increase availability are their short loan periods and steep (at least comparatively speaking) fines for overdue books. It did make me wonder, though, whether the fines do result in more books being returned on time or simply in poorer and more stressed students who will simply hoard their books because they need them.
From the Seeley, we moved on to the Radzinowicz Library, in the Criminology Faculty. With the main courses of the Criminology Institute being Police and Penology, I was expecting a somewhat bleak place, a sort of prison-library, a sort of panopticon-library much like the Seeley. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Housing around 60,000 books, the library covers a huge range of fascinating topics, from philosophy to social welfare, from penology to forensic psychology. Sunny, warm and spacious, it’s less CSI and more ideal reading nook — a quality for which their dedicated librarian must take most of the credit for. Had I discovered it while still a student, it would’ve definitely turned into a favourite study spot. Highlights from the visit: the forbidden books and the artwork.
Among their oldest and rarest volumes, the Radzinowicz library holds a couple of shelves of books that had been considered inappropriate for reading a few decades ago. They were sent to some authoritative body – I can’t remember the specifics, sadly – by zealous readers keen to get these books off the market and off their shelves. Said institution would have thrown them away (though it looks like thousands may have stayed with their employees), so Criminology took them. The usual suspects were there: the Marquis de Sade, Flaubert, a number of lesser known novels which almost invariably contained the word ‘flesh’ in their title (The Fleshy Mirror being one of them). But they also had a bit of Sartre and Defoe’s Moll Flanders.
The artwork is something you notice as soon as you walk in, because it’s everywhere. Stuart, the librarian, explained that every year he attends an art exhibition/competition where inmates can showcase their works, and buys something with the money gathered from the library fines. Most of these were astounding in both concept and execution: an immense fireplace (maybe a metre long) with storytelling panels, recalling both the author’s life and Dante’s Inferno — carved entirely in soap. An Egyptian head carved in matchsticks. A ceramic figure entitled ‘Paranoia’, wearing a straitjacket and facing a shark (which it can never run from, of course), its head made up entirely of scared eyes gazing in all directions. The list goes on. It roots the library into the concerns of its books and students; it gives the people they study about a voice and a personality. Unlike the panopticon, it only displays what they chose to display. And, even if you’re not interested in the books, the Radzinowicz library is worth visiting for this alone.
(Featured image, Willey Reveley’s 1791 plan of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon).