My posts this semester have tended to focus on library services for underserved populations:

  • What can the library profession do to better celebrate diversity? (See February’s ‘Library Friday’ post)
  • How can a public library provide needed services to various immigrant populations? (See April’s ‘Library Friday’ post)
  • And this month, how do librarians who work in prisons provide people who are incarcerated, access to information?

Part of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights includes a subsection titled, ‘Prisoners’ Right to Read.’ In this subsection, the ALA “…asserts a compelling public interest in the preservation of intellectual freedom for individuals of any age held in jails, prisons, detention facilities, juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, prison work camps and segregated units within any facility.”

Importantly, the ALA urges that access to information while in prison helps make people’s transitions back into society go more smoothly, once released. Put simply, behind bars should not mean without books.

This month I chose to interview Emily Jacobson, a correctional services librarian. Emily is employed by the New York Public Library (NYPL) and provides services to people at Rikers Island. Excitingly, SU’s chapter of LISSA may get the opportunity to help revitalize a library space in a local correctional facility in the upcoming months. Even more excitingly, Emily has agreed to answer any questions LISSA may have about prison libraries beyond this interview.


What is your personal background as a librarian?

I did my undergraduate degree in creative writing. It was obviously a fun major, but not much of a career. I worked for a magazine right after college and although I loved my coworkers and the work I was doing, it wasn’t super meaningful to me.

I noticed that when I had a stressful day at work I’d go home and arrange my books. It was calming. Around that time, all of my friends were going back to grad school, so I decided to go to library school.

I got involved in correctional librarianship the same way I got ended up in library school: on a fluke. I began as a volunteer while I was in school. As I went through school, I had a bunch of other jobs and internships, but my work in correctional librarianship was the most enjoyable and fulfilling to me.


What is it like working in a prison library?

It’s very different. What I really like about it is the direct service aspect. Some of the other jobs I’ve had involved cerebral tasks. For instance, talking about a metadata scheme. I prefer engaging with the patrons, and being in the ‘here and now.’ 

Because it is an intense environment, our NYPL staff visits Rikers 2 to 3 times a week, and our main office is in midtown Manhattan.


What is your day to day work like?

It’s super different every day. It depends on what else is going on, but I like having a changing schedule.

The collection services department is small; there are 7 people. We run weekly and biweekly programs at 4 of the jails at Rikers, where we go to a facility and offer library services there. We also answer reference letters from the incarcerated, research the answers, and get back to them. They ask us anything under the sun. 

Library service is the ‘meat and potatoes’ of our work. I manage the programs at 2 of the facilities. The first facility houses men who have been sentenced. This typically means they went through their trial and are serving a term of less than one year. We set up boxes of books for them in the gym. The books are uncatalogued, and we write down check outs by hand since there are no electronics allowed in the jail.

The other facility I manage programs for is the women’s facility. Last summer we were able to open a dedicated library space. So instead of setting up boxes of books and breaking down, or offering mobile services, it is a permanent space. Since it feels more like a library, it is a nice environment to work in.

In the other 2 facilities, we use mobile book carts. There is always going to be some kind of hurdle that stands in the way of people getting service, and we are going to always try to overcome that. We lend out books, magazines, and comics to all of our patrons. We are very open to suggestions and enjoy having conversations with people about what they’d like to read next.


How has the permanent library space been received by users? What types of programming do you offer to patrons?

It’s been received really, really well. Previously we were pushing a book cart around the facility. When you’re one person with a book cart, there’s only so much you can do. We were bringing the book cart to special units where women had mental health diagnoses and what not.

Opening a permanent space allows us to see the entire facility. We went from seeing small groups of women from specific units to as many as 100 women per week from different units. We’ve also begun offering ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes a few times a week.

Through our ‘Mommy and Me’ program, we talk to moms about the importance of reading to their kids, and the positive impact it has on a child’s early literacy skills. We record a mother reading book, and allow her to give the video to her child(ren) during a visit.

We also offer a reentry resource book called ‘Connections’ for people who are getting out of prison.


What are your thoughts on the right of all people to access information – which includes the incarcerated?

I feel pretty strongly that regardless of your incarceration status, the public library is for everyone.


SU’s chapter of LISSA may get the chance to help restore a library space in a local correctional facility. Any advice?

I would advise you to be patient. Prisons often operate on a different schedule or system than what most people are used to. Things can be a little bit slow.

Because you said there currently isn’t a library space at the facility, you aren’t going to have a hard time ‘selling it’ to people. They will likely be excited. Involve patrons and ask them what they’d like to see in the space.