Last summer the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, which offers circulating library services to five city jails and creates resources to help incarcerated people upon re-entry, approached Parsons with a request: for years, they had been making do with jury-rigged equipment — dysfunctional carts handed down from the correctional facilities’ cafeterias or maintenance staffs, cardboard boxes mended with utility tape, etc. They asked if Parsons could help them design new book carts, and Dean Brian McGrath jumped at the opportunity. He asked furniture designer Joel Stoehr to dedicate a fall design-build course to the carts, and enlisted me to help.
Several of us joined the Correctional Services staff last summer to assist with library service at Rikers Island and the Metropolitan Correctional Center. What an illuminating, moving experience — one that prepared us to appreciate the tremendous value these services offer, the incredible dedication of the staff, and the significant challenges they face — and, remarkably, surmount — in providing professional library service to our most marginalized populations. Last fall Joel’s class drew students from all across Parsons; they consulted regularly throughout the semester with the library staff, and I stopped by periodically, too. By the end of the semester, the students had not only designed, but also constructed brand-new, bespoke library carts — with powder-coated steel frames and maple plywood shelves — that are now in operation in New York’s correctional facilities.
We’re working to produce a book to document and celebrate the process (actually, Joel and a tremendously talented Parsons student designer have done the bulk of the work!). When that book comes to life, I’ll of course post about it here. For now, I thought I’d share the essay I wrote for the book; it’ll be joined by essays from Joel and one of the students:
EQUIPMENT FOR REDEMPTIVE LIVING
With two stuffed totes looped over her shoulders, she adeptly maneuvers a wheeled suitcase through the security gate. Once inside, she drags her freight through a maze of hallways toward a closet lined with boxes. Surveying the contents of those boxes, she swaps out some of the wares with fresh additions from her totes and suitcase, then hoists the boxes onto an industrial cart that’s seen better days. With her payload carefully balanced – she’s done this many times before – she makes sure to grab her clipboard, then trundles out into the hallway, mindful of the cart’s temperamental front wheel. Here, she’s joined by a security officer, and together they make their way to an elevator. On one of the upper floors, they muscle the cart over uneven floor tiles and set up shop in a stairwell, positioning the cart so as not to impede circulation, and arranging the boxes on stairs to facilitate browsing. Patrons are then led in two or three at a time. They hungrily yet carefully dig through the boxes, make their choices, and sometimes lodge special requests for materials that will be delivered on a subsequent visit. Our keeper-of-boxes notes her patrons’ selections on the clipboard – and once all are served, she moves on to another stairwell in another house.
Library service in New York City’s correctional facilities is not a high-tech affair. While public libraries across the nation are reinvigorating and networking themselves through the integration of sophisticated design labs and customer-service apps and linked data initiatives, the public libraries in our jails and penitentiaries are significantly more lo-fi – yet no less vibrant and vital. Here, trained librarians have marshaled clipboards and hand-me-down carts, donated books and cardboard boxes to offer incarcerated individuals access to information and entertainment – to extend the basic services of this revered democratic institution to one of society’s most marginalized publics.
Borrowing a phrase from literary critic Kenneth Burke, we can say that these analog accouterments function here, in these less-than-ideal settings, as nothing less than “equipment for living.” Burke used the phrase to explain the purpose of literature, which, he said, arms us “to confront perplexities and risk,” and has direct bearing “upon matters of welfare.”[i] For incarcerated populations, reading materials offer a means to pass the time and imaginatively escape their restrictive environments – to build a “bridge to the free world…with a broader horizon,” as prison educator Austin MacCormick put it in 1950.[ii] They also, Megan Sweeney argues, help incarcerated people “come to terms with their pasts, contextualize their experiences in relation to larger frameworks, and gain inspiration from others as they learn to imagine – and create – new ways of being in the world.”[iii] Correctional services librarians are attuned to the distinctive challenges and needs of this population, many of whom struggle with substance abuse and mental illness and socio-economic disadvantages, who have relatively low levels of education, and who represent a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.[iv] And librarians can develop their collections, and connect individual patrons to particular books, that address, and aim to redress, these obstacles and injustices.
More concretely, prison libraries – which encompass the collection, the staff, and the programs they organize for their patrons – help to promote financial literacy and cultivate job-seeking skills and other competencies and sensibilities that ease patrons’ eventual re-entry into their communities. They can connect patrons with support services, like local Alcoholics Anonymous chapters or English as a Second Language or GED classes; and prepare them to find a home and get a driver’s license.[v] The New York Public Library publishes an annual Connections re-entry handbook (available in both English and Spanish) that lists precisely these kinds of resources. Perhaps the general public doesn’t always appreciate the value of providing such services to formerly incarcerated people, but by helping them navigate this tricky transition, library services have the potential to reduce recidivism, which both “saves taxpayers money in the long run” and makes our communities safer.[vi] “From a community safety perspective, helping people [who are or had been in prison] make positive changes is important,” argues Daniel Marcou, a correctional librarian in Hennepin County, MN. [vii] And once they re-enter their communities, formerly incarcerated people can turn to their local public libraries to serve as bastions of that hard-won change. As Brendan Dowling explains,
Libraries …serve as a natural place for ex-offenders to transition back into their communities… Libraries are public buildings that are not threatening to them, unlike other government institutions… At the library, ex-offenders find a neutral and anonymous atmosphere in which to go about the business of restructuring their lives.
Inside the correctional facility, however, that transitional “place” rarely commands a dedicated building, or even a room. For the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, the library exists where the cart resides. A stairwell, a cafeteria, a hallway: each becomes a library when the book cart wheels in. As librarian Brenda Vogel explains, “The book cart is the library totem to a prisoner… This service must not be merely a token, it is representative of the library and in its own form should be of the same quality and have the integrity of the service offered in the library.”[viii] That’s a tall order when librarians are forced to make do with equipment handed down from the prison cafeteria or maintenance staff, when “we match the institutional food carts,” as one librarian explained to me. “We were used to MacGuyvering things” – to relying on the Department of Corrections (DOC) for equipment and access, and then attempting to re-align our professional practice with their way of doing things.
A Fall 2015 partnership with Parsons School of Constructed Environments transformed those MacGuyvers into furniture and service designers, and afforded them an unprecedented degree of freedom and control over their work patterns, conditions, and environments. By aligning the librarians’ experience and expertise in social and informational services, with Parsons students’ experience and expertise in translating clients’ needs into constructed environments, the collaborators produced new, more functional and hospitable “equipment for living” that has the potential to empower both librarians and their patrons. In those often drably analog institutional structures – with their steel-and-cinder-block surfaces, harsh fluorescent lighting, and impersonal acoustics – Correctional Services’ new, custom-designed library carts function as heterotopias, other-spaces or temporary utopian oases, on wheels. Their “glowing” maple plywood shelves “bring sunlight” to drab corners, a group of librarians rhapsodized.
When a new cart made its debut at Rikers Island, one patron asked incredulously, “You did this for us?” The 18- to 21-year-old women on Rikers responded with particular enthusiasm, one librarian reported. “It’s definitely a conversation piece.” Many patrons have asked the librarians about the design process, perhaps signaling a burgeoning interest in design – one that the librarians can then encourage by recommending relevant resources within their collections. And word-of-mouth has distributed news of the carts’ arrival to other houses that aren’t currently reached by NYPL Correctional Services, prompting requests for expanded service.[ix] Those requests are often filtered through the corrections officers, who have for years observed the library staff’s resourcefulness and consistency, and who now express (even if tacitly) greater appreciation for the librarians’ increased autonomy and professionalism. The new carts “raise our profile within the DOC,” the librarians told me.
Before the new carts’ arrival, the librarians were bound by the protocols and practices dictated by their equipment. The battered boxes and wobbly wheels determined how they did their jobs and served their patrons. In order to maximize collection capacity and ensure its secure transit across uneven floors and treacherous thresholds, the librarians boxed up their books by size, packing books of similar dimensions into the same box, and stacked them with logistical efficiency. Because logistics in the environment were so precarious, logistical management thus became a primary operative logic informing their work. Now, with these custom-designed carts – with shelves designed specifically to store and display books, and with greatly enhanced stability and maneuverability – the librarians can organize their collections in ways that are intelligible and accessible to patrons: with shelves dedicated to particular genres, popular fiction displayed on the front, and newspapers on top. Patrons can circulate around the cart, exploring the full extent of the collection. This new equipment for service thus furnishes new equipment for exploring and thinking – and, by extension, living.
The librarians’ lives have changed markedly, too. They welcome a respite from the repeated hoisting of boxes and wrestling with obstinate carts. “We’re now on offense, not defense,” one librarian reported, referring not only to their long battle with borrowed equipment, but also their ongoing struggle with the larger institutional structures within which they work. This new equipment steels them to face those challenges in pursuit of their broader mission: the new carts “elevate the service,” allowing the librarians to roll in and proudly proclaim, “We are the New York Public Library. “We now have a mobile library” that can facilitate and “showcase the work we do.” The staff now more confidently make their claim that Correctional Services, long overshadowed by more prominent brick-and-mortar branches, is the “89th branch of the NYPL” – one deserving of adequate recognition and material support. The librarians now have equipment that allows them to “represent the NYPL at full capacity” – “of the same quality and… integrity of service offered” in the other branches, as Vogel advocates – but in more compact, more nimble fashion. Those “glowing” carts of maple and steel equip the Correctional Services staff to live up to its full capacity – to celebrate the professional service they have always provided, despite their limited resources – and to thereby equip their patrons, many searching for renewal, to live richer, redeemed lives.
[i] Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973): 293-304.
[ii] Quoted on Vibeke Lehmann, “Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries” Library Trends 59:3 (Winter 2011): 492.
[iii] Megan Sweeney, “Reading and Reckoning in a Women’s Prison,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50:3 (Fall 2008): 304.
[iv] See Lehmann 2011: 503.
[v] See Brendan Dowling, “Public Libraries and the Ex-Offender” Public Libraries 46:6 (November/December 2007): 44-8.
[vi] Lehmann, “Planning And Implementing Prison Libraries: Strategies And Resources” IFLA Journal 29:4 (2003): 301-7; Lehmann 2011.
[vii] Stephen M. Lilienthal, “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” Library Journal (February 4, 2013): http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/02/library-services/prison-and-public-libraries/
[viii] Brenda Vogel, The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2009): 39.
[ix] Because of limited staff, time, and supplies, the Correctional Services staff prioritizes particular houses in the correctional facilities; they prioritize houses with “special populations,” including those with mental health disorders or those under protective custody, who have fewer opportunities to connect with the outside world.