Public Photography in the Public Library

The Hamilton Public Library should embrace the opportunity to benefit from community sharing and promotion, instead of wasting resources in a futile attempt to stop it.

By Wayne MacPhail
Published January 20, 2011

On January 19, I had five minutes to present to the Hamilton Public Library Board my view that their existing photo policy was overly draconian, especially since I considered the library a public space. Afterwards, the Board decided not to change its policy but to make its forms more available to the public.

Below is the text of my presentation.


Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you this evening. I am presenting as a photographer, as a citizen journalist and as a citizen.

I recently had the experience of being prevented from taking pictures in the Hamilton Public Library by a librarian and a security guard.

This is, unfortunately, becoming a more frequent occurrence in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and worldwide. Photographers are being harassed, prevented and questioned by security guards and police, simply because they took photographs of buildings or of citizens in public places.

Photography is Not a Crime

This should not be the case. Photography is not a crime.

In Canada, photographers are free to take photographs of whatever, whomever, whenever we like in public spaces for non-commercial purposes.

Citizens in parks, on streets etc. do not have, or should not have, a reasonable expectation of privacy. They are in public. I would argue the same for someone at a work station in the midst of a well-lit, glass-walled public library.

However, the library and I disagree that the Hamilton Public Library - despite its name, public mandate and public funding - is a public space. Let us, for the moment, set that aside.

Right now, in order to take photographs in the library a visitor must get permission from the communications department, outline the reason why he or she wishes to take photos, schedule when the photo will be taken, and indicate how the photos are going to be used.

Public space or not, I would argue this is an overly draconian, unproductive, outdated and ultimately unenforceable measure. I am here to encourage you to amend it.

Unproductive, Outdated

I say it unproductive because it requires staff time that could be better spent elsewhere, I'm certain.

It is outdated because we have seen, in the past two years, an explosion of mobile devices. Images from these devices are being shared every day, in the millions, on social networks such as flickr, twitter, facebook and many others.

For the current generation (and old folks like me), these devices and these social networks have become a powerful means of celebrating moments, sharing discoveries and promoting destinations and events.

Many organizations have discovered and cherish the power of crowdsourced videos and images as a free means of brand extension and exposure. In fact, this was precisely what I wanted to do with the images I was prevented from shooting and sharing.


It is unenforceable because, using those same small mobile devices, patrons are routinely taking pictures and videos in the library. They also engage in video chats with patrons showing up behind them. And, of course, lots of parents are snapping cellphone pictures of their children at play.

Also, two computers in the children's area have built in webcams and applications that have enabled patrons to take photographs.

Many of these images will be shared on social networks. While you could request the images and videos be removed, again, it would be unproductive and would create mounting ill-will. And again, you must have better things to do.

If you prevent only those photographers who have, say, DSLRs, then you are enforcing a policy in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner. That is no way to engender compliance or good will. On the other hand, if you enforce it continually ... Well, you must have better things to do.

The situation, right now, is a lose/lose. You miss the opportunity for powerful social media celebration of all the library has to offer. Your library staff will be engaged in an increasingly frustrating game of Whack-a-Mole with patrons - a game which has not gone well for the record industry. Patrons lose by not being able to practice their art or cover their community with greater ease.

Better Policy Choices

I would argue that the public library is a public place. The guidelines established by the Muehl Public Library in Wisconsin acknowledge the library as a public space, a priori, and offer a brilliant and polite solution.

That policy, which I encourage you to adopt, is that photography is allowed in their space, but that photographers show some simple courtesy when taking pictures of patrons. According to the Public Libraries Act Section 23(4)a, you have the power, as a board, to make this change. I encourage you to do just that.

Another option, although my second choice, is the policy of the Toronto Reference Library.

I recently visited that library and informed a librarian that I wished to take pictures. I was directed to the security desk. I was asked to fill out a simple form, which I have provided to you. With this signed form in hand I was free to take pictures of the library and of patrons, with their permission.

For the next half hour I shot panoramas of the atrium, shared those images with my nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter and shared pictures of the library's Sherlock Holmes room and materials - this all to the delight of the curator and the patron I photographed after asking permission.

I got very positive feedback on Twitter, especially from folks who had no idea there was a Sherlock Holmes room there.

Embrace the Opportunity

In my day job I consult to universities, health care organizations and book publishers about social media. My message to them is the same one I am suggesting to you: Embrace the opportunity instead of resisting the change.

The ability to sample and to share our world is now in the hands of almost everyone. We are social beings - we will share. This is a wonderful, human response to a complex and frightening world.

We want to celebrate, to laugh together, to document, to remember and to express ourselves freely. These are good, natural impulses amplified by the tools that now fall so easily to hand.

Find ways to use that river of sharing to your advantage. If you continually attempt to stop photography you will fail, you will apply rules in a discriminatory manner and, of course, on blogs and other social media tools, tales of your arbitrary draconian measures will appear and echo unstoppably. That too is reality.

So, a solution? I suggest that the Hamilton Public Library follow either the Muehl Public Library or the Toronto Reference Library's leads. Either process is less time-consuming and onerous for you and satisfies your legal responsibilities.

You get great social media coverage and patrons have more ease when they wish to photograph and celebrate your facility. You will find photographers, when treated with respect, will return respect in kind to you and your patrons.

I hope you will consider my proposal seriously. I look forward to hearing of the results.

This essay was first published on Wayne's personal blog. Wayne has also written a follow-up letter in response to the Board's decision not to change his policy.

Wayne MacPhail has been involved in creating online community, collaboration, conversation since the early 1980s when he created the first hypermedia journalism in Canada. He is a former photographer and managing editor for Hamilton Magazine and a reporter and editor with the Hamilton Spectator. He went on to lead Southam Inc’s exploration of future information products at Southam InfoLab, and helped to design the first polypublishing toolset for newspapers in Canada. He then co-created a comedy site for AOL Canada that had a robust international community and fanbase.

Since then he has created online content for major online network players in Canada (including AOL, CANOE, MSN and Bell-Emergis). As Director of Content for Sympatico-Lycos he introduced rich content and powerful discussion forums for the cross-Canada site. Wayne has also launched discussion forums internal and externally for York University, Centennial College and the Alzheimer’s Society of Ontario (ASO). He teaches online journalism at the University of Western Ontario and Ryerson University and is a published playwright and book author.

Wayne is also an avid runner, cyclist, photographer, videographer and gardener and lives with his wife, Barb, on Ray Street North in Hamilton. He has his own emerging media consultancy, w8nc inc., whose clients include University of Toronto, McMaster University, Random House, The Association of Science and Technology Centres and the Association of Ontario Health Centres.


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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 08:46:03

Makes sense to me Wayne. I remember after a high school football game the next day I saw my photograph on the sports page of the London Free Press. I was playing on school board owned field and no one asked to take my photograph and they shouldn't have to. It's a public space.

I think your suggestions are very reasonable and hopefully the library will adopt one of the solutions you have offered to them. Certainly libraries should be elated that someone is promoting and marketing their facilities, one would think at any rate.

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By wmacphail (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 08:53:42

Thanks HamiltonFan. However, the Library Board voted last night to keep the policy the same, although they will make the forms more available. But, if you shoot pictures of your children in the library you don't need to fill in the form.

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By HamiltonFan (registered) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 09:01:39

How in the world can they tell if the kids you are photographing are your kids? What if you bring in your kids and a friend of theirs?

At any rate you've brought to their attention this issue and have demonstrated that other libraries have different policies although perhaps they know that already.

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By wmacphail (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 09:15:05

Yes, but their view is that libraries and their policies have to judged and managed on a case-by-case basis. They argued last night that a nearby halfway house, the marginalized population in the area and the ethnic mix of the HPL means they need to be very sensitive to people taking pictures in the library or even asking folks if they would like to be photographed.

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By Mark-Alan Whittle (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:12:03

Public schools are strict about this too, I had to get all the students in my disabled son Logans class to sign a release form before the media photographer from the Hamilton Spectator was allowed to do his thing in the school Library. The published picture in the Spectator was awesome, good story to, about accomodation for disabled kids in regular school.

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By wmacphail (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 10:34:33

Just heard back from Ken Roberts, the chief librarian at the Hamilton
Public Library. Ken argues that librarians have the unilateral ability
to apply the intent of the photo policy on a case-by-case basis. The
intent of the policy is to protect what Ken calls a "small but
important" subset of the library's customers who do not wish to be
photographed or may feel obligated to be photographed if asked by an
authority figure.

In response, I have suggested that it then makes sense that
photographers wishing to photograph the building or non-identifiable
people not bother with the form but begin shooting (that is, acting
like parents with children). Then a librarian or security guard who is
schooled in the policy and who has authority to apply the intent can
make a call and, in fairness, should make it the same way they do now
with parents. If photographers wish to shoot identifiable people then
they should get a form the Library Board said would be more readily

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 12:47:07

This is a pretty common policy, and almost always silly beyond belief. At one point I was stopped on the sidewalk outside Dofasco and threatened with arrest as two security guards went through my camera deleting every picture of the plant I'd taken from the sidewalk. The same is true of malls and many other areas. Virtually all of these areas, of course, photograph us constantly with surveillance cameras, but that's another matter entirely, right?

I fully support the right to take pictures of things and places. However, going around photographing anyone you wish, and then publishing those pictures has consequences (especially on social media). Don't be surprised if people don't want to be a part of your slideshow. Is it a "right" not to be photographed? That's a big question. But as a photographer, it's absolutely horrible etiquette not to ask (at least by gesture).

A far better policy for the library and elsewhere would be "ask first", posted widely. It's not the photos they're worried about - it's the ensuing shouting matches.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 13:43:58

Now I'm no activist or provocateur; I'm rather on of the law-and-order bent, in general. But having ready Wayne's piece, I have decided that this avid amateur is taking both his mobile and DSLR with he on his inaugural visit to the new library.

This sort of small-minded, draconian, nannyist, bureaucratic thuggery cannot go unchallenged lest it creep and spread all the faster.

Comment edited by moylek on 2011-01-20 13:46:47

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 15:54:52

Note to self: do not post to RtH while in customer-support voice mail mazes. Sorry for the mangled prose, my sensitive cohammerists.

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By bobinnes (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 20:23:51

Great article about something I never think about and would have a hard time deciding if I were on the board. Most folks could care less about a crowd shot or obliging a cameraman trying to shoot a pic of someone admiring a fountain or something. But what about unflattering or cruel shots (approved or not) taken perhaps by a provocateur as Moylek suggests? His point is a good one though and I would probably support a mass photo "ride" outside corporate sites just to affirm Undustrial's rights against the terrorism lobby's efforts to constrain us, which have gone overboard, imo.

Wayne, your story about Mona Lisa's eyes (on website) was a nice bit of humour.

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By Mainfloorgaurd (anonymous) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 21:28:06

You meddling little artists with your cameras had better not disturb my little kingdom that I have going on here at the HPL! Whats next? People reading or trying to have group meetings? SHUDDER!

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 20, 2011 at 22:12:00

As a photographer, I generally draw the line at identifying photos. If a person is visible enough in a photo to be identified in places I'm likely to post or publish that picture, that's a sign I should be asking first. We all catch people in shots by accident, but we're all capable of cropping, too. When taking pictures, you have no way of knowing what the personal, legal or professional consequences of a published photograph of someone might be. This doesn't mean you should never take pictures - just that you should be respectful of people's choice not to be photographed while going about their own business.

Sadly, if nobody is allowed to take photos, they'll just use hidden cameras, and nobody will have the choice to notice the guy with the big SLR and stay out of the way. And even if we don't mind being in photos, those taken by big obvious cameras are generally far more flattering than their tiny hidden cousins.


This is a great resource for photographers in terms of Canadian law. It also concludes with some very good advice on how to assert those rights without burning bridges for every photographer that follows you.

Comment edited by Undustrial on 2011-01-20 22:13:00

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted January 20, 2011 at 23:09:32

I enjoy street photography. I used to take the GO into Toronto when I was younger and take pictures of strangers without any problems with one exception. While around the Skydome, taking pictures, some guy was pretty aggressive in telling me to get lost. He turned out to be a scalper.

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By f/8 and be there (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:15:51

I'm an avid amateur photographer and sometimes freelance photojournalist.

I'd like to thank the Library Board for their decision, though if it were up to me I'd be happier to see libraries as "photography free" zones.

The resources and services that a library provides are important to operation of a free, open, and democratic society, and there are situations in which a likelihood of being photographed could inhibit people from making use of those facilities.

It saddens me that many posters here don't seem "get it" when it comes to questions of privacy / anonymity in locations such as this.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:54:47

I agree and disagree with the last post. I agree that people should be able to expect a moderate amount of privacy in the library, especially if with their kids or if they are studying. I also believe that this rule should be relaxed and handled on a case by case basis, without all the red tape.

Say for instance I want to take a picture of that neat book return conveyor belt, the green wall or any of the other new and interesting features that were built in the renovation. I should be able to ask a librarian/security guard if that's alright to take a picture of, and they can make a decision based on the amount of people in the area or other conditions. I don't think you should have to submit forms and requests and go through all that bureaucratic process just to take a photo or two.

I have been exploring the new library a lot this week and have been discovering all the neat little things they built into it. It's all really interesting and I'd love to photograph it, even if I had to arrange an after-hours thing.

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By MikeH (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2011 at 12:26:46

I never had a problem taking pictures inside the place. Been doing it since 2005. Granted I don't walk around like a tourist with my camera slung over my shoulder snapping away. I'm discrete about it. But on the other hand I don't specifically take pictures of the general public either. I can see the HPL point of taking pictures of people on the HPL property, but if it's just general stuff then who's it hurting? No one

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By Be polite, not predatory (anonymous) | Posted January 21, 2011 at 22:00:17

Common courtesy - ask before taking.
We all live in the same world, so why would you make someone UNCOMFORTABLE deliberately?
Ask before shooting, otherwise bug off.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 22, 2011 at 12:09:51

Whatever your feelings on photography, it's an awful policy. These kinds of "ban everything - enforce selectively" prohibitions just lead to confusion. It's very easy for administrators - they don't have to put the time or thought into making a rule that specifically targets harmful or disruptive activity, and they can then enforce it (or not) however you wish. As a patron, though, it's not so easy. For us, rule then takes on an amorphous character, changing depending on who's enforcing it (and nearly always who's on the recieving end).

I would not be against a policy that says "ask a librarian first", but banning something and giving librarians the option to look the other way puts them in an awful position. If anything does "go wrong", it's their head for "neglecting their duties" even if they were following the same unspoken rules as everyone else.

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By Noted (anonymous) | Posted January 19, 2013 at 10:00:12

While guests swing on poles, local singers will perform and there will be sessions on novel writing. Books will be used as bats in games of "booky table tennis" sessions held through-out the day.

Council bosses at Midlothian Council in Scotland hailed the unusual event as the first as its kind, calling it a "fun and interesting" way of encouraging people to use libraries in the area.

But Laura Swaffield, chairman of The Library Campaign, said that while pole-dancing was a novel approach to whipping up interest in local services, using books as table tennis bats was "just a step too far".

"We all agree in particular that the more that people use our libraries the better but I think using books as tennis bats is just a step too far," she said.

"Pole dancing is a new way of drumming up support so I suppose if it works what the hell, we may as well give it a try. But books as tennis bats? I'm absolutely appalled."

Bob Constable, Midlothian Council's Cabinet member for public services and leisure, defended the decision saying that the council had decided to host the pole-dancing event as a "fitness session".

Ultimately, he said, it was a "fun and interesting" way of encouraging more people to borrow books and try out local library services.
He added: ''But it's not just pole fitness on offer. I'm delighted to see such a wide range of free and exciting events organised to mark this special occasion.''

Other activities on offer in Midlothian including country dancing, head massages and an Xbox challenge. Local musicians are also performing, and sessions will be held for hopeful authors on how to write a novel.

The pole-dancing event is being held on Love Your Library Day – February 2 – at Mayfield Library in Dalkeith.

The pole dancing class is for over-16s only.


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By Edward Stevens (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2016 at 02:58:03

I shot panoramas of the atrium, shared those images with my nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter and shared pictures of the library's Sherlock Holmes room and materials - this all to the delight of the curator and the patron I photographed after asking permission. security guards

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By security guards (anonymous) | Posted February 18, 2016 at 04:16:40

But Laura Swaffield, chairman of The Library Campaign, said that while pole-dancing was a novel approach to whipping up interest in local services, using books as table tennis bats was "just a step too far".

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