Prison Libraries’ Book Holdings and Circulation Before 1940

face of a prisoner
Reference point: sheet: Prison Library Dataset (includes prison population figures)

Data on prisoners, book holdings, book circulation, and share of prison library users for individual U.S. state and federal prison libraries for source-determined years from about 1868 to 1940. The cross-section data are not fully reconciled across years. Some years include data from multiple sources. Selection of sources and matching of facilities across years is necessary to use these data as panel data.

prisoners browsing books in prison library
From Annual Report of the Director Bureau of Prisons to the Attorney General of the United States, July 1,1938 to June 30, 1939.

U.S. prison libraries in 1875 held an estimated 6 volumes per prisoner and circulated yearly 34 volumes per prisoner. These figures changed little through 1938. Comparing state prison libraries with public libraries in 1875 indicates that prison libraries held six times more books per prisoner than public libraries held books per adult in the U.S as a whole. Prison libraries’ relatively large book holdings per prisoner and circulation per prisoner are consistent findings from the nineteenth century to the present.

The prison library data for 1875 nearly covers the universe of identified state prisons. The union of records (including general population census records) identifies 53 state prisons in 1875. Among these institutions, 39 had prison libraries. Specific data indicate that 9 of the remaining 14 institutions did not have prison libraries. The state prison reported in Atlanta, Georgia (476 prisoners estimated for 1875) almost surely did not have a prison library. Most of these prisoners were probably dispersed in leased work gangs and on state farms. The other four prisons for which no information is available are small, with the state prison in Olympia, Washington (36 prisoners estimated for 1875) being the largest. Those prisons probably didn’t have a library, and even if one did, the library was surely very small. Overall, specific data on volumes in prison libraries (or absence of a prison library) covers 97% of state prisoners in 1875.

Dataset sheets:

  • summary 1875-1938: prisons covered, prisoner count, prison libraries volumes, circulation, share of users, and volumes and circulation per prisoner, selected years 1875 to 1938
  • comparison 1875: prison libraries compared to public libraries for book holdings per adult in 1875
  • 1875 estimate: estimate of prisoner population and prison library books in state, territorial, and federal prisons in 1875
  • 1938 library summary: summary statistics and individual library records from Falkoff’s survey of prison libraries in 1938
  • Prison Library Dataset: a unified dataset of records for individual prison libraries (prisoners in facility, book holdings, circulation, user share) from various sources for various years from 1868 to 1940 (useful also just for tracking prisoner populations over time within specific prisons)
  • PLD description: Prison Library Dataset (PLD) field descriptions for prison library records
  • founding years: for each state, the year in which a state prison library was first established
  • reading ability: reading ability of prisoners in U.S. state prisons, 1873, according to prison officials’ reports
  • additional data: on prison library book holdings and circulation
  • 1896-1903 data, 1908 data, 1913, 1938 data: individual prison library records for the given year with some data (volumes added, phamplets) not included in unified Prison LIbrary Dataset
  • England & Wales 1910: by prison, average prison population and prison library book holdings

Related datasets:

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *