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Reviewed by:
  • Privacy: A Short History by David Vincent
  • Carolyn Heald
Privacy: A Short History. DAVID VINCENT. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016. viii, 187 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-7113-0 (pb).

The title of David Vincent's new book is succinct yet deceptive. This is, indeed, a short book on the history of privacy. However, as the author points out, privacy has a very long history, going back well beyond the famous 1890 Warren and Brandeis article in the Harvard Law Review, which precipitated the development of an invasion of privacy tort, and certainly further back than Jeremy Bentham's notorious Panopticon of a century earlier. Anyone expecting a dry, legalistic study of privacy rights and laws would be well off the mark. Even those of us in the privacy business cannot help but be surprised at the sheer breadth of the concepts encompassed by this one small word as explored by Vincent. As information professionals, we naturally think of privacy in terms of protection of personal information; however, privacy professionals define four classes: bodily privacy, territorial privacy, communications privacy, and information privacy.1 Without necessarily naming them as such, Vincent addresses privacy in all of these areas.

David Vincent is a social historian associated with Keele University and the Open University in the United Kingdom. He has written extensively on literacy, privacy, and secrecy, mostly focused on 19th-century Britain and Europe. It is not surprising, then, to find that this short volume is primarily a history of privacy in England, with rare forays into other parts of Europe and North America. Canadian content is limited to two references to New Brunswick native David Flaherty, a former British Columbia information and privacy commissioner, who wrote the first monograph on the history of privacy in 1972 (albeit on the subject of colonial New England).2 [End Page 165]

Despite the geographic limitations, there is much to learn from this broad social history of privacy. The book starts somewhat arbitrarily in medieval times, around 1300, and finishes in the digital world of 2015. This is no march of progress; rather, as Vincent says, "There are no beginnings in this history, only threatened endings" (p. 2). Privacy has existed in all eras, at least in the sense of a withdrawal from public scrutiny. Three motivations for this search for privacy are just as relevant today as they have always been: "There was the nurturing of intimate relations whose conduct required a realm of protected discourse. There was the search for an inner sanctum where individuals could manage their mental archive and conduct their bodily functions. And there was the defence of thought and behaviour from invasion by external structures of authority" (pp. 2–3). In the course of exploring these motivations, Vincent touches on elements of demography, including family size, and the rural/urban dynamic; housing, including room design and the changing use of spaces, both interior and exterior; pastimes, such as reading, diary writing, rambling, and driving; and the development of communications technologies, including newspapers, gossip rags, postal mail, and the telephone.

One theme of particular interest to archivists is the connection between records and privacy in the private sphere. Here, Vincent elaborates on the concept of "virtual privacy," as "the use of the communications technology of the era to extend the realm of affective relations" (p. 18). These are our private manuscripts or personal archives: personal correspondence in the form of letters, telegraphs, emails, and text messages enabling individuals living in crowded households to develop and maintain intimate relations, both licit and not, with someone either inside or outside of the household. "The written message was the substitute for the distant body" (p. 18), says Vincent, summarizing the key point of the first English-language manual on letter writing, published in 1571. Vincent weaves together vast social trends to situate records in their historical context. Speaking of the Victorian era, he says, "The state's concurrent investment in both elementary schools and cheap postage was of a piece. Literacy would facilitate the writing and reading of letters, and in turn the awakening appetite for correspondence would create a demand for schooling" (p. 67). He furthermore appreciates the interplay...


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pp. 165-168
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