PLSN organizes events and volunteer opportunities that attempt to move resources out of institutions and into the hands of incarcerated people and the library staff who provide service to them. Our approach is defined by respecting the authority of incarcerated library users to define their own needs. We develop projects in response to direct requests for information that creatively and strategically address barriers to information access inside jails and prisons. For example, our volunteer reference project has helped Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Public Library answer over thirty reference questions a month related to topics not represented in their library collections. These questions are asked by incarcerated library users in person and are passed on to PLSN by public library workers when they can't be adequately addressed on site.
While our goal is to offer concrete material relief, we are careful not to engage in work to establish resources we cannot sustain. As PLSN has no budget and is volunteer-powered, we rely on strong relationships and collaboration with the library workers at New York City institutions who can reliably access the long term resources necessary to sustain a given project - at present we've worked with library staff at the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and Queens Public Library as well as the Interference Archive and the New York Metropolitan Library Council. By developing a constellation of relationships, PLSN makes small steps towards establishing a sustainable and functional abolitionist network to share information and library resources with incarcerated people in ways that would not be possible otherwise.
You can see a timeline of our work here.
Sadly, our work is confined to New York state. This is primarily due to our limited capacity for public-facing communication - as an organizer, I always prioritize efforts to move resources into the hands of incarcerated people over any kind of outreach or communication about our work.
Even though this is the case, we've been contacted by individuals or groups in other parts of the country hoping to get involved - primarily with volunteer reference. When this happens, we do our best to offer our work as a model, so that people can autonomously operate as locally as possible. I really hope at some point we grow enough to establish sustainable and organized ways to involve anyone regardless of location.
Our services are not presently promoted to those incarcerated in NY prisons, outside of the promotion of public library services in general. This is because all of our programs are organized in collaboration with existing public library services.
While it is a long-term goal for PLSN to sustain an autonomous service (like our own reference service), it is critically important to me to be aware of the scarcity of resources for incarcerated library users and the power differential that creates. Above all, PLSN is careful not to make commitments or promises that we cannot keep.
Like many other services provided by third-party organizations in correctional facilities, library services have been indefinitely suspended since March. This means unfortunately projects like our Volunteer Reference Project, which launched in January of 2020, are on hiatus. To learn more about the impact of COVID-19 inside facilities, we invite you to join us on December 2nd at 3 pm for a panel at the Metropolitan New York Library Council featuring New York City-based correctional services librarians discussing their experiences providing jail & prison library services, how they see COVID-19 playing out, and how volunteers can help. You can register for this free online event here.
While our projects are on hiatus, we have been working on building the collections of the Jail and Prison libraries with whom we've built relationships. From November 23rd to December 6th, we will be hosting an online fundraiser for these collections. This feels like a critical way of scaffolding library resources while services are shut down in New York City. The effects of COVID-19 have upended the way libraries traditionally serve people, and it has required creative solutions. At the same time, budgets are being cut and there is no indication that the city or public library systems will commit adequate resources to serve what administrators consider to be "special populations". This fundraiser will make it possible for library workers to provide high-quality books to those who are incarcerated, homeless, in shelters, or have no internet access. You can learn more about how to donate by visiting our website or reaching out to us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are always looking for new volunteers at a number of different levels. Interested SLA members are more than welcome to support PLSN by donating directly to the libraries that serve incarcerated people. You can do this by purchasing books from our recently established Greenlight Wishlist, or pledging a donation to the aforementioned upcoming fundraiser. The books on the wishlist have been hand-picked by New York City library workers who provide library service to correctional facilities and shelters that house people who have recently been released. Just donate any title from the wishlist and your book(s) will be delivered directly to a public library collection at a jail or shelter in New York City.
SLA members are also welcome to participate in events that PLSN organizes. You can attend our events or support our work by sharing information about PLSN with your network. Our next event - Jail & Prison Libraries in a Pandemic: a panel with PLSN + Correctional Services Library Staff - will take place on December 2nd at 3 pm. This event is online and free. Anyone can register on the Metropolitan New York Library Council's website and can keep up with upcoming events by following our accounts - @plsn_nyc on Twitter and Instagram.
If SLA members are interested in contributing more significant amounts of time to our work they are welcome to reach out about participating in PLSN's central organization. We are always looking for help with social media, event coordination, outreach, among other things. To get involved email us at email@example.com.