ALA Council Updates Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained | ALA Annual 2023

For the first time in over 30 years, librarians who work with incarcerated or detained individuals have a set of standards that reflect the diverse populations they serve.

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At the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference, held June 22–27 in Chicago, ALA Council approved new Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained that are more comprehensive and inclusive than the previous version, created in 1992.

During the Library Services for the Justice Involved (LSJI) meeting on June 24, retired researcher/librarian Eldon Ray James told attendees that the Council vote “is the culmination of many, many years of work” that involved contributions from dozens of stakeholders, including those who have been incarcerated themselves.

Members of the working group who oversaw the revision included James as well as Victoria Van Hyning, assistant professor of Library Innovation at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies. Van Hyning noted that it’s important for more people to be able to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the standards.

“This is a document that really gives people up-to-date guidance on how to make appropriate programing and advocate for themselves and for prison, jail, and detention administrators to see this document as giving appropriate professional guidance for librarians that is worth the broader Department of Corrections operations listening to,” Van Hyning told LJ.

The new standards include nearly 20 case studies from library workers throughout the United States and Canada who work with incarcerated people across different types of institutions and detail how libraries can partner with stakeholders to meet the varying needs of individuals of any age held in institutions, whether public or private, military or civilian, temporary or permanent.

“It’s for people learning how to use the kind of technology they’ll encounter upon release if they’re released, and it’s for those who are not going to be released to really continue to grow and learn and have recreational fulfillment, and be able to really conduct a meaningful life,” Van Hyning added.

The update comes at a time when, like most other types of library workers, prison librarians are witnessing an uptick in censorship. Stacy Lyn Burnett, who manages JSTOR’s Access in Prison project, praised the working group for including a clearer mention of patron privacy in the updated standards.

“In prison it’s viewed that you don’t have privacy rights, so even the acknowledgement of privacy rights is a win,” Burnett told LJ. “Library records can and have been used in disciplinary hearings” against prisoners.

As Burnett explained, on paper, the new standards make it more difficult for disciplinary officers to use book checkouts as proof that an individual took information and absorbed it for nefarious purposes. There is no guarantee that the institutions that employ librarians will agree with the standards or implement them. But the working group and collaborators all agree that having updated standards they can point to in their decision-making helps.

Van Hyning said the group is strategizing ways to circulate the standards among institutions and publish them in a variety of formats, in concert with research and field trainings created by staff members from San Francisco Public Library’s Jail and Reentry Services program, such as Jeanie Austin, whom Van Hyning says offered the working group foundational and invaluable support.

“It’s a professional tool, but it’s a living document,” Austin told LJ. “Hopefully, once it’s out there, the Standards team [will be] getting feedback and finding more examples of things that are working well that can inform revisions in the future.”

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