Rachel Kinnon and Jeanie Austin, librarians at the San Francisco Public Library, get hold of about 60 questions per week from a committed institution of enthusiasts: prison inmates.
The inquiries, usually handwritten and sent by submitting, range from requests for records approximately transitioning to existence out of doors of prison to causes of technologies that might not have existed earlier than a prisoner was put away, like 5G and bitcoin. Song lyrics are a frequent ask.
Tech infiltrates nearly every element of our lives, however, remains sincerely nonexistent in jails and prisons. Inmates usually don’t have to get entry to computers or mobile telephones. Sometimes they can ship and acquire electronic messaging, a stripped-down form of an email. But it’s expensive and constrained by way of character counts.
That’s why Kinnon and Austin are so essential to inmates. They function human pass-betweens for prisoners and data it’s frequently effectively to be had online.
Prisoners specific “how they have been certainly disconnected earlier than they’d this hyperlink to the sector,” said Kinnon, who manages the SFPL’s Jail and Reentry Services application. “There’s this type of determined need for facts.”
The Next Chapter is a multipart collection that examines the converting position of libraries in a connected world.
Unlike Google, which commonly returns results in much less than a second, the process of answering prisoner questions can take weeks. Kinnon and Austin test the letters they study and electronic mail them to other librarians, who considers the solutions. Researchers frequently do a quick Google look for the answer or get admission to dedicated databases such as ProQuest, EBSCO and Gale.
When the responses come again, the pair evaluation them, print them out and mail them back.
Librarians: the authentic search engines
The SFPL, that’s celebrating National Library Week in conjunction with other US establishments, isn’t always the handiest library that serves as a de facto Google for inmates. In truth, its letter-writing carrier, referred to as Reference using Mail, is modelled after a similar application at the New York Public Library.
The libraries cut up the usa, with the NYPL taking letters from prisoners in the jap half of-of the usa and the SFPL taking notes from the western half. A 1/3 library, the Harris County Public Library in Houston, receives letters from prisoners in Texas.
There are limits to what they could provide. For example, librarians can’t offer legal advice, personal entertainment or facts related to violence. Inmates are allowed to write down up to 2 letters a month to the SFPL.
All responses include a supply note explaining why a selected resource changed into selected, as well as a reference listing. Responses can run as many as 20 pages. Sometimes librarians will write their very own factors. Other times, they may send an editorial addressing the subject an inmate is interested in.
“Sometimes we get requested astrophysics questions, and I’m similar to, ‘Screenshots all of the manner,'” says the SFPL’s Austin with a laugh.
Not all the questions revolve around critical topics. One man or woman wrote to the NYPL asking approximately the records of the new dog, even as any other requested images of each My Little Pony. Someone once asked for romance spells, especially ones that would make paintings via mail.
The fact that prisoners use their restrained delivery of stamps and envelopes to jot down to the library is telling of ways critical the aid is to them, Kinnon says.
“We’ve had human beings say explicitly, ‘I wouldn’t get any mail if it weren’t for you,'” she says.