Providing library services to people held in prisons and jails can be a challenging endeavor. Those who take on this work will need to navigate complex, and not always welcoming, corrections’ bureaucracies and face censorship or be themselves co-opted into censoring in ways that are antithetical to the ethical tenets of librarianship. Yet the information needs among incarcerated and detained people are immense given their limited access to the internet or other technologies (if they have any at all) and under-resourced and often understaffed prison libraries.
In a new book published by the American Library Association, Jeanie Austin of the San Francisco Public Library explores the place of libraries and librarians within the American carceral system and provides practical information for those wishing to provide services to the country’s millions of incarcerated and detained people. Here we explore what motivated them to write the book, the impact they hope it will have, and what issues are currently top of mind for providing library services to incarcerated people.
Kurt Tanaka: What trends are you seeing concerning providing library services to incarcerated people? Which are you most hopeful about, most concerned?
Jeanie Austin: LIS professionals and students are much more engaged with the topic of incarceration than, in my experience, they were a decade ago, which leads me to believe there may be a real sea change in the amount of services available to incarcerated people. Preliminary findings of Chelsea Jordan-Makely’s ongoing research with the Library Research Service at Colorado State Library suggest this is the case. Efforts through Reginald Dwayne Bett’s Freedom Reads, PEN America, and, of course, Ithaka S+R are also heartening. To me, this is not only evidence of a response to mass incarceration but also suggests a shift in how people who are not incarcerated conceptualize the humanity of incarcerated people and the ethical issues at play in the American system of incarceration.
Read the Complete Interview (1335 words)