Just like I did for my recent rare book and beer pairing event, I wanted to share a few quick thoughts about the work I’ve been doing with incarcerated scholars in the hopes that it’s helpful for other rare books/museums folks who want to include prisons in their outreach iniatives. I have a million other thoughts about how amazing and challenging it is, but this post is just for quick outreach take-aways.
Why do this?
By now it’s no secret that my goal in life is to bring rare books (and museum artifacts in general) to people who want to learn from them but have never been given the opportunity (serving underserved populations, if you want to use field lingo). When I think about a population that is underserved in pretty much every possible way, I think of people who are incarcerated. Many current and former prisoners can’t vote, have limited access to educational resources in prison, and have trouble finding work or funding for an education once they are released. This is in addition to the fact that few prisons offer meaningful programming that discourages recidivism, even though such programs (like Common Good, or like this rehabilitation work) are effective and badly wanted by prisoners.
I just finished giving a presentation for NFAIS on building expanding audiences and empowering community members through unlikely collaborations. The audience, as well as Marcie who was the moderator/cat wrangler/problem solver, were all fantastic and I had a great time chatting with them. I wanted to offer a few highlights from the talk for folks who weren’t able to attend but who are thinking about their own outreach programs.
NB: I focused on rare books since that’s the area I work in, BUT these guidelines could be used for outreach with all sorts of artifacts across many cultural heritage institutions.
Why talk about this? Because outreach is critical for increased access and community empowerment
Special collections historically very exclusive
Often limited to those doing research or in academic/special library settings
Historically excludes those without access to education and other resources
Often we do not reach beyond these walls, meaning most potential visitors are not aware of what we have to offer.
Physical access is also an issue (e.g. can someone get to campus? Do they need a certain ID or enrollment/employment status to use your services?)
Even for those who have access, perceived access may be a totally different matter. Special collections often feel intimidating for the uninitiated, and concerns about whether one has access or what expectations are in a special collections environment can overshadow the desire to engage with collections and programs.
In recent weeks, the State Historical Society of Iowa has been faced with reorganization and funding cuts, which threaten to reduce access to its irreplaceable collections and to displace staff who have dedicated their careers to helping Iowans learn about their past. Plenty of folks have written about the specifics of the situation (the petition link includes links to many helpful sources to educate yourself), but what I want to focus on is my experience with SHSI, and why that experience makes me believe absolutely in the importance of keeping this organization funded and its records accessible .
I was lucky enough to work at SHSI at the start of my Master’s program, and it was one of the most valuable and enjoyable jobs I’ve had. I started volunteering there when I decided I would apply to the Library and Information Studies program, and later came on as a work-study employee after I was accepted. I bounced around to do a few different things at the Iowa City branch, including some cataloging, preservation/conservation, and special collections (one of my first assignments was working with Civil War and World War I diaries from Iowa veterans, which was challenging and lots of fun). I got to learn about some awesome Iowans through the records they left behind, and their stories are the ones I turn to again and again when I talk with others about the value of preserving history.