Prison Libraries Have Held More Books Per Adult Than Public Libraries

face of a prisoner

In the U.S., state prison libraries developed in the nineteenth century more quickly than did public libraries. In 1875, prison libraries held 3.0 books per prisoner, compared to public libraries’ holdings of 0.5 library books per adult in the U.S. as a whole. Nineteenth-century prison libraries had diverse book holdings, including recent best-sellers and controversial titles.

Recommended holding of books per person were higher for prison libraries than for public libraries. In the 1930s, committees within the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Prison Association (APA) established standards for libraries. For public libraries in places with populations less than 10000, the ALA standard for book collections was three volumes per capita.^ The ALA-APA standard for prison libraries was ten books per inmate.^ ^ In 1962, the ALA and the American Correctional Association (ACA) adopted new objectives and standards for libraries in correctional institutions:

A collection within an institution should never be less than 6,000 well-selected volumes with at least 10 books per inmate. Institutions which have large groups of long-term prisoners should provide a minimum of 15-20 volumes per inmate.

The objectives and standards distinguished very small correctional institutions:

An exception may be made for a very small institution such as a camp or prison farm. Here there should be a small reference collection, supplemented by frequently changed books from a bookmobile, public library, or the State Library.^

These standards were incorporated into the ACA’s Manual of Correctional Standards in 1966.^ Both library and correctional professionals recognized the importance of books for prisoners.

Prison libraries continued to lead public libraries throughout the twentieth century in holdings per adult served. Public libraries in 1977 covered in their service territories about 87% of the U.S. population. Public libraries held 2.3 books per adult in their service territories. Prison libraries, in comparison, held 10.2 books per prisoner. U.S. prison libraries in 1977 thus held more than four times as many books per person served than did public libraries.

Prison libraries have held more than books. In the 1977 figures of books per adult, books comprised bound volumes, including bound volumes of periodicals. Some prison libraries also contained unbound current periodicals. A survey of state prison libraries in 1970 found 82 state prison libraries in 29 states held audio-visual materials and had audiovisual equipment.^ Some prison libraries responding to a survey in 1977 reported thousands of audiovisual titles.

Recent prison library recommendations underscore the importance of books to prisoners. In 1992, the ALA standard for prison libraries became “no less than five thousand (5000) titles, selected according to policy, or fifteen (15) titles per inmate, up to 2,500 inmates, whichever is greater.”^ The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions currently offers as a general guideline a minimum “2000 titles or ten (10) titles per inmate, whichever is greater.”^

Librarians have made extraordinary efforts to serve inmates. In 1971, Betty Barlow was a paraprofessional library staff member at the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas. On her own time, she personally initiated library service to the jail in Lawrence. Evidently both the jail staff and inmates appreciated Ms. Barlow’s efforts. In 1977, a new jail was built with facilities for a library. About 1979, Ms. Barlow reported, “We have over 1,000 volumes in the jail library and a back-up of about 5,000 paperbacks at the main library.”^

The extraordinary rise in incarceration in the U.S. since 1980 has reduced the quality of prison library service. By 2004, public library books per adult service had risen to 2.6 books per person. Prison libraries held about 7 books per prisoner in the year 2000, down from 10.2 in 1977. Prison library book acquisitions have not kept up with the rapidly growing prison population. But that’s not a good focus for policy concern. Mass incarceration is a much more serious problem than the shortfall in prison library books. The rise of mass incarceration underscores the importance of making prisoners relevant in public understanding and public action.

The decline of printed matter and the rise of digital works create fundamental challenges for prison libraries. Public libraries are exploring new, non-print media for providing public access to public information and public narratives. Prisoners, who retain their public citizenship, need access to public information and public narratives to make their public citizenship meaningful. That need goes beyond information legally required to uphold inmates’ constitutional right to lawful access to courts. Consistent with public safety, continuing prisoner access to public information and public narratives requires innovation in prison library services.

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