A Beacon Behind Bars: Updated Standards Designed to Increase Accessibility of Carceral Libraries

Laurie Robinson - June 27, 2024

INFO Assistant Professor Victoria Van Hyning was instrumental in writing the Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained, which had not been updated in over 30 years

Reading glasses sitting on open books

An ideal carceral facility library allows for unrestricted information seeking in support of educational or vocational programs; offers a complete reference section; presents a continually updated law library; and, perhaps most importantly, is supported with sufficient professional staff and resources to meet the information needs and interests of all users in the facility.

For over thirty years, the Standards for Library Services for the Incarcerated or Detained has been an advocacy tool for carceral facility librarians and their users seeking to make their spaces welcoming and supportive. It has now been updated and will be available in print and digital formats soon. University of Maryland College of Information (INFO) Assistant Professor Victoria Van Hyning worked on the Standards, and brought a new focus on how to make carceral facility libraries accessible for users with a range of dis/abilities. 

How Van Hyning Got Involved 

Between 2018 and 2020, while working at the Library of Congress, Van Hyning began contemplating how the nation’s library fulfills its stated mission “to serve all Americans,” with regard to people who are incarcerated. She engaged in discussions with colleagues and educated herself about existing services, developing a freely available Zotero library collection along the way, with the support of the INFO College.

In 2021, INFO Assistant Professor Ana Ndumu directed Van Hyning, who was newly hired at the INFO College, to a call for participants to rewrite American Library Association’s (ALA) standards for library provision in carceral settings. ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall and her team led the effort to  update the outdated Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions, which had not been revised since 1992. Their plan involved bringing together diverse stakeholders, including carceral librarians, educators, politicians, and formerly incarcerated individuals like Randall Horton, Ray James, and Reginald Dwayne Betts, who have each devoted their lives post-release to advocating for library and information access and creative writing, music, and arts opportunities for people in carceral institutions. In 2021-2022, Hall’s team convened 40 to 50 people on Zoom on eight occasions. Van Hyning actively participated in those meetings and expressed her eagerness to contribute to the project.

Once the project got underway, its execution and funding were supported by a Mellon Grant, awarded to the San Francisco Public Library Juvenile Services group.

Making Libraries Accessible 

Van Hyning made sure the Standards considered accessibility from many angles. Within the physical environment of the library, she called for adequate rotation space in the stacks to accommodate wheelchair users and appropriate seating. She emphasized the importance of low or no-glare lighting and clear labeling on stacks and shelves, visible from various heights. Additionally, she advocated for ADA-compliant equipment, such as magnifiers, screen reader technology on electronic devices, and audiovisual listening stations equipped with headphones and screens displaying videos with subtitles, catering to deaf or hard of hearing users.

Ray James, a fellow drafter and project manager, pointed out to Van Hyning, “For a lot of people who’ve received a life sentence, they’re going to age in place. They’re going to age in these facilities. These facilities are not made typically for aging people or disabled people really of any kind.”

“And so that was something that he put in my mind that I had been thinking about accessibility, but not really for an aging population,” says Van Hyning.  

She thought of specific ways to cater to an aging population. “Sometimes people are losing their memory or other cognitive abilities, so they can’t really reliably navigate the facility very well. And so having book delivery services up to different units is really helpful,” she says. 

Van Hyning also emphasized the importance of using high contrast fonts and backgrounds to enhance readability. She highlighted that many individuals with undiagnosed print disabilities, such as dyslexia, enter carceral facilities without a diagnosis. These individuals, their family members and past educators, might not have offered the kinds of resources they need to attain a reading age comparable to their years of education. Therefore, providing large print materials, age-appropriate literature, informational games, and other accessible resources that do not appear juvenile is necessary.

“There’s various presses that specialize in more simple language stories or books or informational packets, but for people who are older,” she says. “And so we were trying to think about accessibility very holistically, not just in the physical environment, but in terms of what are the materials you’re offering?”

Spotting an Opportunity in the Marrakesh Treaty

While working on the first draft of the Standards, Van Hyning read up about the Marrakesh Treaty—a multilateral treaty that facilitates and improves access to published works for people who have a disability—and spotted an opportunity to expand library material offerings through this mechanism. Marrakesh enables librarians, social workers, and teachers to verify that someone has a disability for which they require an accommodation—a significant expansion of who can certify that a person needs alternative formats due to a disability. Previously, this certification was heavily medicalized, requiring a diagnosis. This radical shift broadens what libraries can acquire in terms of accessible formats. For instance, if a book is printed in size 11 font, but a user requires size 18 or 20 font, or needs the content in Braille, the treaty allows for such resources to be produced or shared. Libraries within a consortium can commission a Braille version of a book for their user and then share it through interlibrary loan networks.

“So yeah, having somebody in-house who can say, ‘Yes, this person has a disability,’ and then that kind of opens the doors to more resources being available, that’s a big deal,” says Van Hyning. “You have kind of a superpower to get materials in the door now that you didn’t have a few years ago for the librarians and teachers.”

This change is particularly crucial in carceral facilities, where cognitive disabilities are more prevalent. Many incarcerated individuals have experienced brain damage, often from head injuries, which can significantly impair their ability to process and read information. These impairments typically affect multiple senses, making access to alternative formats indispensable. 

Cultivating a Network of Insight

Tracie Hall and her team ensured that several drafts of the Standards received substantive feedback through public listening sessions at the ALA annual conference, and dedicated gatherings that included formerly incarcerated men and women, politicians, educators, librarians, and books through bars program providers not involved in the writing process. Each participant and each round of feedback contributed unique insights to the final document.

Throughout the writing process, the drafting team effectively tapped into this extensive network seeking both evidence-based research, on-the-ground practice, and a wealth of lived experiences to shape the document.. 

“The voices of people who have been incarcerated have probably been the most carefully listened to in this process and consistently centered,” says Van Hyning. 

Through robust engagement and ongoing dialogue, the authors have received profoundly valuable contributions that shaped and refined the Standards. This collaborative process underscores the importance of ongoing communication with stakeholders to continually improve library services for the incarcerated, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and supportive environment for all users. 

The authors are hopeful that the active cultivation of a diverse feedback network by ALA and those involved with the Standards as drafters, editors, convenors, and advocates for the cause, ensures that the Standards remain relevant, inclusive, and responsive to the nuanced needs of incarcerated or detained people.