The American Library Association (ALA) will be holding its annual conference next week (June 23-28) in Washington DC, in person for the first time since 2019. The conference theme, “together again,” points to the critical importance of building and sustaining community, and I am especially excited to see that the conference schedule has multiple sessions that will provide opportunities for librarians who serve incarcerated people to connect and learn. Even in an increasingly censorius national environment, the carceral system presents librarians with especially acute challenges in upholding their professional and ethical standards, making community and support structures especially important. The number of sessions devoted to this topic also represents a significant growth in interest and recognition of the need to serve people who are incarcerated, and the suite of events will hopefully provide librarians who are not currently serving this population with an opportunity to learn.

The highlight of these sessions is surely to be the hearing on library standards for people who are incarcerated, a half-day forum to take place on Thursday, June 23 from 1:00-4:30 pm. The standards have not been updated since 1992 and so are in dire need of revision. The session will involve panel discussions and testimony by practitioners, advocates, and directly impacted people, all of which will inform the standards committee’s revisions. Given the importance of this topic and the critical need to incorporate the perspectives of all stakeholders, it is also important to note that this session is free and open to the public.

Opportunities for librarians who are directly engaged in serving incarcerated people to meet will also be prominent. Jeanie Austin, previously interviewed for this blog, is organizing a closed session for librarians to meet, discuss, and share knowledge and information on Thursday morning prior to the standards hearing. The Library Services to the Justice Involved (LSJI) ALA subgroup will also be hosting an open meeting, sponsored by ITHAKA, to meet Friday morning, 10:30-11:30 am, to decompress, share thoughts about the previous day’s hearing, and talk through their professional practices, strategies, and needs.

In addition to these opportunities to directly engage and share information, there will also be several opportunities to learn from leaders in the field. I am especially looking forward to the panel discussion scheduled for Saturday, 1:00-2:15 pm, which will bring together leading figures to talk about the threat of prison censorship and defending incarcerated people’s right to read. That the session will be moderated by Tracie Hall, executive director of the ALA, is important proof of the ALA’s increasing interest and concern for this chronically underserved population. This year’s Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture, sponsored by the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services, will take place Sunday morning, and will be held as a panel discussion led by Jeanie Austin. I am delighted to have been invited to participate in the panel alongside Caits Meissner and Nicole Shawan Junior from PEN America’s Prison Writing Program and Erin Boyington from the Colorado State Library in what will surely be an informative and wide ranging discussion. Finally, Monday from 9:00-10:00 am will see a panel on library services in juvenile detention centers, “Reading in the Negative Space; using poetry and art to create community when technology is not an option,” which will discuss the impact of a youth literacy program in Virginia. 

As previous ALA annuals might have seen just one session devoted to this topic, the sheer number of sessions this year is encouraging, yet translating this energy into action will not be easy. At Ithaka S+R, we are especially mindful of the need to, and the challenge of, engaging and collaborating with Departments of Corrections to make service possible in the first place. Given the fast approaching restoration of Pell Grants for incarcerated students, taking effect July 1, 2023, it will also be critical for academic librarians to find similar opportunities to build community and engage on this topic. I look forward to seeing if similar attention is given to serving incarcerated students at next year’s Association of College and Research Libraries conference, scheduled to take place mere months before Pell is restored.

For more about ITHAKA’s work related to incarceration, visit our landing page here!