Providing Library Services to Incarcerated Populations: Rare Books Outreach [Series]

This is an interview series that will highlight the ways in which libraries and organizations serve incarcerated populations. You can read the first installment in the series, an interview with Jocelyn Nelson of Liberation Library, here.

The American Library Association’s Prisoners Right to Read asserts that

When free people, through judicial procedure, segregate some of their own, they incur the responsibility to provide humane treatment and essential rights.  Among these is the right to read. The right to choose what to read is deeply important, and the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. The denial of the right to read, to write, and to think—to intellectual freedom—diminishes the human spirit of those segregated from society. Those who cherish their full freedom and rights should work to guarantee that the right to intellectual freedom is extended to all incarcerated individuals.

The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that at least 2.3 million people in the United States are currently incarcerated in local jails, state or federal prisons, juvenile facilities, or immigration detention centers. As a future librarian whose #1 career goal is to serve incarcerated populations, I wanted to take a closer look at the ways in which libraries and other organizations are providing access to information to those who are locked up, and share some of the models of service that exist.

Today I am very excited to share my interview with Dr. Julia Skinner. Dr. Julia Skinner is currently the Rare Books Curator at the Bentley Rare Book Museum. Previously, she has worn many different hats in the field and outside of it, including as Senior Editor of Hack Library School (one of her all-time favorite experiences!). Julia is passionate about education and outreach, and about finding new ways to serve often-overlooked communities. In her non-LIS life, Julia works as a food historian and an artist, and spends a lot of time cooking and traveling. You can keep up with her adventures at or on social media at @bookishjulia.

Stefanie Molinaro: You do rare books outreach in prisons–could you tell us a little bit about the work that you do and what brings you to this work?

Julia Skinner: So far, I have worked in one medium-security facility with an education organization (Common Good), but I am hoping to expand my work to include other prisons at some point. I currently work with men, and would love to also work in a women’s prison as well as in other kinds of facilities.

About a year and a half ago, I started diving in to our offerings to think about who we were serving and who we weren’t. I started asking not only ‘who aren’t we serving?’ but ‘who has not been served by special collections as a whole?’ Special collections and museums (my work has a foot in each world) are both saddled with a lot of perceptions about how accessible they are to most of the population, thanks to a history of being very closed off and offering programming that only serves a handful of communities. These perceptions of course don’t reflect the reality of every organization today, but they still impact how accessible museums and special collections feel to many people.

When it comes to community outreach, there are tons of programs that are free and open to the public, but I didn’t find many examples of materials being brought out into the community itself to serve the public where they are. And, I found even fewer examples where materials were brought to underserved communities (there is often a perception in cultural heritage that people need to come to the artifacts, rather than having the artifacts go to them, so programming for underserved communities is still usually held at the library or museum itself). My solution was to develop an outreach program where I basically cold call different community organizations and tell them about our work and the ways it might benefit the people they work with, and suggest a few programs we could do together. This has brought me all over the place, but one of the places I really wanted to bring the books was in to a prison classroom, so I was very grateful when Common Good was open to working with me.

SM: Why do you feel it’s important to bring rare books to prisons? 

JS: Rare books come with a lot of preconceptions attached to them: namely of elderly white men sitting in richly-decorated libraries with dusty old tomes. This perception, not surprisingly, is not one that gets many people running in the direction of their nearest special collections, particularly because this perception is married to many perceived and actual barriers to access, both historically and in the present day (institutional affiliation, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, etc.) However, I’ve found that while people are intimidated by the idea of what a rare book collection is, they are also fascinated by the actual books, and if you create an engaging space and interactive experience, rather than telling people what to think about the books, they will find usually something they connect with pretty quickly. This has been especially true in my experience with incarcerated scholars—this particular class is very excited about the books, but also excited to talk about them and to connect what we learn to their lived experience.

To me, working with rare books and other artifacts is very empowering. Our books may not be meaningful to every prisoner in the way they are to me, but they assign their own equally important value to the books, and have the chance to interact with a kind of cultural artifact they may never have been able to access previously. Another key implicit message a rare books-based program conveys is a statement of trust, both that the prisoners can be trusted with the physical artifacts and that they are trusted to be intelligent and curious enough to grapple with their contents. This is a message we rarely offer in most any institutional setting, particularly in prisons.

I think rare books as artifacts are a powerful outreach tool because they offer us a map of the history of intellectual discourse, and open the door for conversations about what information has and has not been valued over time. In particular, having the rare copies available gives us a tangible connection to a historical period, and we can begin to imagine what life was like and what accessing information was like in those times. Sharing an artifact that is a physical bridge between a historic period or figure and the present day brings home not only the weight of history, but the fact that this particular person was a living, breathing person just like them. It’s a simple concept we all intuitively understand, of course, but when you are holding an artifact and you can feel how different the paper is, or see what they type looked like, or talk about how information was spread in the Middle Ages vs the Early Modern period, you start to get an understanding of what life was like for the person who made this book. One of the big lessons I use the books to impart is that they are vehicles for sharing history, but that we get to choose what history we record today, and that the stories of each person who holds those books are important to our history and should be included.

SM: I read on your blog that you have been working with the organization Common Good in order to teach classes. Could you tell us a little bit about the work Common Good does and how you developed a relationship with them?

JS: Prisoners were one of the first groups I wanted to work with in my new outreach program, and I could find nothing about rare books being brought in to a prison before, so was eager to give it a try. However, getting approval to bring materials in to a prison is challenging, and I wasn’t even sure how to go about it since there was no model for teaching with rare books in that setting, so I felt like I hit a wall. I reached out to a couple folks elsewhere in the country who had taught classes in prisons without rare books, but I never heard back.

My colleague Heather Oswald told me about Common Good, and I was fortunate that they were very excited to work with me. They are an incredible organization that runs college-level courses, and they put in a lot of work towards tailoring content and activities to the incarcerated scholars’ needs while also offering them a quality education. One example that highlights how successful their work has been is the conference they held in 2015. The topics the men chose are brilliant, particularly the connections they make between different intellectual areas as well as their own experiences. This speaks to the scholarly abilities of the men (the conversations I’ve had with them are on par with or even more thoughtful than many I have at academic conferences) but also to Sarah and Bill’s gift for fostering that ability in their students.

SM: What does a typical class look like? 

JS: It really depends on the class: So far I have only taught a couple classes in the prison, but will be teaching more in a workshop-based format this month. My first classes had a lecture-ish component, but with space for continuous Q&A while folks looked at and handled materials. I structured the classes so that I would show items that corresponded to each concept I discussed, which in this case was the development of the book as a technology. The first part of the class I would give them handouts I made (available on my website) and talked with them a bit about the history of the book (the first class was pre-1450, the second class was post-1450). The handouts I gave them had quite a bit of additional information, so they could learn more if they so desired.

Since the goal of my outreach efforts is to create meaningful, collaborative programs, the second half of each class was spent brainstorming with the men about other materials they wanted to see or subjects they wanted to learn that spoke to their own interests and learning goals. The biggest interest that emerged was their desire to learn from a working artist, so we decided to do our next set of classes on book art.

In these workshop classes, I’m developing handouts that will use the artistic skill we are learning (in this case, calligraphy) and connect it to the historical concepts we’ve already learned. I plan to give them how-to instruction, and then talk about the historical concepts while we practice, to maximize the amount of hands-on practice being done during the workshops. During the second workshop, we’ll bring back what we worked on the week before, build on it with different techniques/layouts/materials, and brainstorm again about what other topics we can cover. Currently, I’m planning to continue a combination of hands-on skills classes and artifact-based activities that support their other coursework (e.g. bringing in 19th century novels to support a literature class), but it all depends what it most beneficial and interesting to them.

SM: What are some of the books that you’ve included in your plans? Do you have a favorite book or topic to teach? What kind of requests have you received from your students?

JS: This particular group is as interested in form and function as they are in contents, so I have gotten requests related to both (e.g. more manuscript books or books with a certain style of binding binding, as well as books by a certain author or about a certain topic). In my book technology lectures, both in this case and in other contexts, I bring a variety of items that broadly show the history of the book as the technology has developed over time. For example, I bring in cuneiform tablets alongside medieval manuscripts and printed works from the Renaissance to the present, and start conversations about how the technology impacts access alongside our conversations about the technologies themselves. Since my outreach work is heavily informed by offering access to communities without it, these conversations about technology and access are often very fruitful, particularly in the prison context where the men are acutely aware of the impact access versus a lack thereof can have on their worlds.

Since the men have done book arts before in the class, and several make visual art on their own, there is also a big interest in artists’ books and in having conversations about what a book is (I like to show them examples of non-codex books to spark these conversations). We also use historic examples (like books printed with wood blocks) in addition to contemporary book art.

As far as subjects, there has been interest in Shakespeare, in illustrated books, and 19th century works, among other things. They also really liked the copy of Galileo’s Systema Cosmicum that I brought in. Our copy was printed a year before his death, and it was really powerful for me to watch a group of incarcerated scholars engage with a work produced by someone else who had been incarcerated. The great thing about this particular group is that they have already been studying a range of subjects for a while, so have a really wide variety of interests that they can connect to the scholarly conversations we have. Because they regularly take college-level courses, we’re able to have more specialized discussions about the books than I can in some outreach contexts, but the basic format of how I approach building an outreach relationship remains the same (bring materials with some prepared info to spark conversation; find out what people want to learn; build future programs based on their interests).

SM: What has been your biggest challenge in implementing this work? Your biggest triumph?

JS: I feel like my biggest triumphs have happened with every successful step I take in working with incarcerated scholars (and I am still in the early stages, so there are so many more triumphs!) One of the happiest moments of last year for me was getting the email from Sarah and Bill (from Common Good) expressing their excitement about working with me, and each time I’ve gone in to the classroom and led a class it has felt like a triumph. The men are so engaged and so knowledgeable that it makes my job easy and fun, and the pride I feel in watching them work is the best feeling.

There are two challenges that come to mind: The first is the feeling I have when I get home, and am forced to really critically examine my privilege as someone who isn’t incarcerated, especially after spending hours with people who are just as smart and driven as I am, and realizing they don’t even have the freedom to decide what they want to eat for lunch. This is challenging from the perspective of productive discomfort, and it’s up to me to channel my discomfort in to meaningful action. I’ve found that the more I learn about the realities of the prison system, the more eager I am to continue and grow my work teaching in that setting.

Another challenge has to do with perceptions in our field—overall I have gotten a very positive response from folks, but there has been some pushback from time to time from colleagues who are focused more on the risk of serving incarcerated persons than on the importance of offering that service. Usually this is from the perspective of potential harm to materials, but occasionally I get pushback about the value of working with inmates at all. In some cases I can have productive conversations about these perceptions, although in a few cases I have encountered colleagues who haven’t been swayed.

Finally, and this is less an existing challenge and more a next step, I would love to work with other libraries and museums to bring object-based instruction as well as related skills classes (e.g. rare books, followed by an art class, like I’ve done this year) to prisons nationwide. Since Common Good is Atlanta-specific, part of that would involve locating similar organizational partners elsewhere, or creating some helpful guidelines for librarians who want to do this work in areas where a prisoner education initiative does not currently exist. I am just at the doorway of that rabbit hole at this moment, but it’s one I plan to go down in the coming years!

SM: What advice do you have for librarians and future librarians who’d like to provide library services to incarcerated populations?

JS: My work is interesting because it sits at the intersection of multiple fields: While I work with a collection that is like those found in libraries (and in fact our museum is housed in the library), I am actually a museum curator with no departmental connection to the library at all. This is all a bit muddled, but is ultimately helpful because it forces me to not just turn to my library background as the sole perspective with which to approach outreach work. So my first suggestion would be to not silo yourself in one discipline—the field of LIS offers us fantastic frameworks for understanding and serving patrons, but it isn’t the only field that does. If you aren’t finding what you need in LIS, look at other fields (like museum studies or public history) for inspiration and guidance. For example, I didn’t know a ton about object-based learning, but it’s really helpful for introducing people to rare books for the first time, so I’m glad I used the museum literature to explore it.

I also would highly recommend partnering with an existing organization if you’re able: My outreach is very partnership-focused, and in the case of prison education it’s been critical, because I am connected with passionate educators who know the class, know the prison and how to navigate the red tape, can suggest programs, etc. While I could have organized a class eventually on my own, it was able to happen more quickly and easily than it would have otherwise.

Be flexible! Prisons (obviously) have a lot of strict rules, and may have things come up (e.g. surprise inspections) that require you to reschedule, or there will be restrictions about what items are housed in/what kinds of items you can bring/etc. Just adapt as best you can! Being flexible also extends to your teaching style—you and the people you serve will get a lot more out of your time together if you are able to adapt based on their interests and learning styles, rather than if you come in with a rigid lesson plan.

SM: I consider myself a prison abolitionist and am very open and upfront with my colleagues about the fact that I volunteer with organizations like Liberation Library, an organization that sends books to incarcerated young people. I feel like a huge part of implementing services to prisons and jails is getting the right people on board. Do you have any advice for making the idea of serving incarcerated populations more accessible and more widely accepted among our colleagues?

JS: This is a fantastic question—I think the short answer is that my framing is very contextual. In some cases, colleagues and other stakeholders respond well to a frank conversation about the prison industrial complex, lack of materials access, etc. In other cases, they won’t, so I focus on another angle (e.g. prison education as an effective method for reducing recidivism rates).

Usually preparing some quick thoughts about program benefits from a few different perspectives (e.g. recidivism rates, mental health, etc.) helps me field questions, think critically about the value of my work, and to be able to change approaches if someone seems like they don’t see the value in what I’m doing. I find this approach is really useful when talking about any community program, because I’ve also faced some pushback, or at least a lack of understanding, when it comes to talking about other programs such as working with low-income seniors. If you are working with a community partner, look at what language they’ve successfully used to advocate for their work. If you aren’t, it may help to point to examples that show positive outcomes elsewhere, particularly if you are talking with administrators who want to know how a new program can benefit their prison.

Finally, I think it’s critical to never stop educating yourself in order to better understand the constellation of issues that surround the prison system. This is both so you can discuss those issues more effectively with colleagues and so you can serve your classes more effectively. There are many good works out there that can help, and I would highly recommend seeking out materials that are honest about the role of race and class in policing and incarceration, preferably by people of color who live with the inequality of these systems every day.

SM: Is there somewhere our readers can go to learn more about your work?

JS: Yes! My blog is the best place for updates about this and my other work. In particular, readers might be interested in my posts on my first Common Good visit, archives and rare books instruction resources (including the handouts I mentioned), and outreach in general.

I’m also on social media at @BookishJulia, where I talk about my outreach work along with a range of the other things that fill my days. I’m always happy to field questions and to talk with folks about working together, so feel free to reach out!


Featured image is a photo of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two Chief World Systems, 1641, taken by Dr. Julia Skinner.

Stefanie Molinaro is entering the second year of her MLIS studies through Wayne State University’s distance program, with a focus on library services to children. She currently works at two public libraries in the suburbs of Chicago, in the children’s department of both. Stefanie is interested in the intersections between librarianship and social justice work, and some of her career goals include creating consciousness-raising programming for children and teens, and providing library services to incarcerated youth. When Stefanie is not working or studying, she enjoys volunteering at Liberation Library and hanging out with her cat, Lily. You can find her on Twitter at @stefmolinaro.

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