Book Reviews

Jeanie Austin. Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access. Chicago, IL: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2021. 208p. Paper, $54.99 (ISBN 978-0-8389-4945-0).

Book cover for Library Services and Incarceration

The ongoing crisis of mass incarceration and racialized, violent policing in the United States touches more aspects of our daily lives than many realize, and libraries are no exception. Library furniture built by exploited prison labor, book and information censorship, reference by mail requests, police presence in libraries as security, re-entry services for formerly incarcerated community members: these are just a small handful of the ways in which libraries and library workers are integrated into the carceral system in the United States. People experiencing incarceration are often marginalized or entirely omitted from discussions of censorship, both in popular and professional discourse, and library services for incarcerated people rarely make more than a brief appearance in LIS school curricula. There has never been a better time to correct these concerns.

Although prison libraries and librarianship have been discussed and championed within the library profession for nearly a century now, Austin’s Library Services and Incarceration: Recognizing Barriers, Strengthening Access comes at a time of “deep introspection and critical engagement” [xi] for the LIS field; it charges us to not only rethink prison librarianship and information access, but also larger issues of incarceration in a society that imprisons more people than any other country in the world. The text is not only thorough and highly informative, but powerful and reflective in its abolitionist approach. One of the greatest strengths of the book is its explicit linkage of past and present scholarship, not just in LIS, but in fields like surveillance studies, criminology, gender studies, critical carceral studies, law, and history. This scholarship also includes, perhaps most importantly, the work and words of currently and formerly incarcerated people. Austin’s text, much like their job, is informed by the actual needs and demands of people experiencing incarceration, not just professional or academic literature.

Library Services and Incarceration is structured in three parts: the first half of the book offers a critical and historical overview and analyses of carceral systems and library services for incarcerated people in the United States. The middle section focuses on information services technologies within carceral facilities, including an emphasis on the surveillance and punitive functions these technologies can serve. The second half of the book examines the practical implementation of programs based on the theory and historical analysis in the first half of the text. Austin looks to community groups outside of the library field that have been providing information services and similar support to incarcerated people for decades, and to the informational needs as expressed by currently and formerly incarcerated people themselves.

Austin’s text, as you might expect from this synopsis, is information-heavy, but it manages to be so without being dense or difficult to follow. Instead, it’s written to be accessible to both long-time LIS professionals as well as those with only a passing knowledge of library services and librarianship. Chapters are broken down into digestible sections, and each includes notes and references at the end. As someone who loves to go through citation lists to find other works to explore, this is perhaps one of my favorite formatting decisions; it encourages readers to seek out further research and connections to community groups. This is critical in the context of informational needs and services for people experiencing incarceration, a severely underresearched subject in LIS.

Few library schools offer instruction specifically on prison librarianship, and even fewer have courses entirely about library services in carceral facilities (see the recent paper “Prison Librarianship and LIS Schools: Is There a Career Path?” by Patrick J. Raferty Jr., 2021, for a further study of this). My own introduction to this field was primarily through my program’s promotion of the SFPL Reference By Mail for incarcerated patrons internship run by Austin. Several of my classmates participated and were eager to share their experiences with it. Library Services and Incarceration gives this reader hope that a critical approach to prison librarianship and advocacy for information services in carceral facilities can become a more integrated and prominent part of LIS programs. Austin’s work serves as both a primer for understanding information access and service issues in the US carceral system and as a handbook for thoughtful, community-oriented, and liberatory practices and programs that can and have been implemented. Most importantly, Austin highlights the actual informational needs and issues of currently and formerly incarcerated people in their own words. As Austin demonstrates in their critical survey of LIS literature on these topics, these voices are frequently omitted from the discussion of information access and censorship even though they’re the voices we most need to hear.

For anyone familiar with Austin’s work, Library Services and Incarceration is an excellent compendium and extension of their research. For those in LIS who are new to Austin or to prison librarianship in general, this book is a crucial resource. LIS programs should strongly consider incorporating this text into coursework, even if they don’t offer specific courses on prison librarianship. Library Services and Incarceration covers censorship, information access, and the informational needs of a frequently overlooked population. LIS professionals and practitioners owe it to themselves, their communities, and their patrons to be informed and aware of these issues, and I can think of no better text to begin that process than Library Services and Incarceration. Austin’s writing is powerful in its urgency and its liberatory promise. Their book encourages us to confront biases—both internal and external—and injustices, rather than shaming us for the sins of mass incarceration. As an abolitionist library worker and doctoral student, this book gives me hope for the future of LIS; it also reminds me that there is still so much to do.—Megan Riley, University of California, Los Angeles

Copyright Megan Riley

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