WG: What do you see as the most pressing reading needs for incarcerated and detained youth in 2012? In the next five years?
Barb: I have thought a lot about this question. I don’t presume to be an expert on the needs of incarcerated and detained youth, but I do have some ideas based on my conversations with Jessica Fenster-Sparber and other librarians in New York City who serve this population. I think the greatest need may be for library access. I suspect that many of our incarcerated and detained youth have no opportunity to use a library at all and, therefore, have very limited or no access to books that they want to read or to instruction in information skills.
The second greatest need is for the librarians who currently serve these young people to receive support through professional development and networking. ASCLA has played an essential role in this by offering ongoing webinars, programming at conferences, policy and practice work in the division, and an interest group focused on the issues confronted by librarians serving incarcerated and detained youth. ALA needs to support ASCLA’s continuing efforts.
Another issue I have seen in providing library services to these young people is that, even if the facility actually has a library, there will most likely be very few good books in the library’s collection. The funding for books is minimal at best; consequently, very few new books can be purchased. In one facility I visited, the “library” was stocked with uncatalogued, donated books like The Tale of Two Cities. When I think about the reading habits of incarcerated and detained youth, my sense is that these young people like to read about authentic characters in authentic situations. I think they also enjoy many of the same genres that all young people enjoy – graphic novels, science fiction, fantasy. These youth should have access to the latest and most popular fiction books for teens.
I am sure that they also enjoy reading or perusing nonfiction, partly because they have limited access to the world that other teens enjoy as a normal part of their day – music, sports, computers, and gaming, for example. Research tells us that teens (especially young men) enjoy having exportable knowledge – facts about various subjects that they can drop in to conversations as nuggets of expertise – so a robust nonfiction collection for detained youth would be especially important.
Because of the transitory nature of many of these students (perhaps they are in that facility only while they are awaiting trial), I think they would be well served by collections of short stories, easily accessible nonfiction, graphic novels, magazines, and other items that they can finish in the time they are there. Many incarcerated youth are struggling readers, so age-appropriate, high-interest/low-vocabulary fiction books and heavily illustrated nonfiction books at a variety of reading levels would serve these young people well.