With out Google, folks behind bars pen their inquiries to librarians



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Rachel Kinnon and Jeanie Austin, librarians on the San Francisco Public Library, obtain about 60 questions every week from a devoted group of followers: jail inmates.

The inquiries, often handwritten and despatched by submit, vary from requests for details about transitioning to life exterior of jail to explanations of applied sciences that will not have existed earlier than a prisoner was put away, like 5G and bitcoin. Track lyrics are a frequent ask.

Tech infiltrates almost each side of our lives, however stays just about nonexistent in jails and prisons. Inmates sometimes do not have entry to computer systems or cellphones. Typically they’ll ship and obtain digital messaging, a stripped-down type of e mail. But it surely’s costly and restricted by character counts.


The Subsequent Chapter is a multipart sequence that examines the altering function of libraries in a linked world. 

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That is why Kinnon and Austin are so vital to inmates. They function human go-betweens for prisoners and knowledge that is usually available on-line.

Prisoners categorical “how they had been actually disconnected earlier than they’d this hyperlink to the world,” stated Kinnon, who manages the SFPL’s Jail and Reentry Providers program. “There’s such a determined want for info.”

Not like Google, which typically returns leads to lower than a second, the method of answering prisoner questions can take weeks. Kinnon and Austin scan the letters they learn and e mail them to different librarians, who analysis the solutions. Researchers usually do a fast Google seek for the reply or entry devoted databases equivalent to ProQuest, EBSCO and Gale.

When the responses come again, the pair evaluate them, print them out and mail them again.

Librarians: the unique engines like google

The SFPL, which is celebrating Nationwide Library Week together with different US establishments, is not the one library that serves as a de facto Google for inmates. The truth is, its letter-writing service, known as Reference by Mail, is modeled after an identical program on the New York Public Library.

The 2 libraries basically break up the nation, with the NYPL taking letters from prisoners within the jap half of the nation and the SFPL taking letters from the western half. A 3rd library, the Harris County Public Library in Houston, takes letters from prisoners in Texas.

Reference by Mail

A number of the letters the San Francisco Public Library receives from inmates. 

Rachel Kinnon

There are limits to what they’ll present. For instance, librarians cannot supply authorized recommendation, grownup leisure or info associated to violence. Inmates are allowed to put in writing as much as two letters a month to the SFPL.

All responses embrace a supply be aware explaining why a selected useful resource was chosen, in addition to a reference checklist. Responses can run as many as 20 pages. Typically librarians will write their very own explanations. Different instances, they will ship an article addressing the subject an inmate is fascinated about.

“Typically we get requested astrophysics questions, and I am similar to, ‘Screenshots all the way in which,”http://www.cnet.com/” Austin says with fun.

Not all of the questions revolve round severe subjects. One individual wrote to the NYPL asking in regards to the historical past of the recent canine, whereas one other requested photos of each My Little Pony. Somebody as soon as requested for love spells, significantly ones that may work by means of mail.

The truth that prisoners use their restricted provide of stamps and envelopes to put in writing to the library is telling of how vital the useful resource is to them, Kinnon says.

“We have had folks say explicitly, ‘I would not get any mail if it weren’t for you,”http://www.cnet.com/” she says.


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