Closing Access Gaps

Lessons from providing reference services to incarcerated students

November 1, 2023

On My Mind by Jules LeFort

My university, like many other institutions across the US, offers an education program for incarcerated people in our state. In spring 2023, the program included—for the first time—a library representative, a role I have happily stepped into.

In addition to having the option to take one college course per semester, incarcerated students can come to a computer lab once a week at their correctional facility. That’s where a student success specialist, a writing tutor, and I provide them with research assistance.

My job is to answer questions and help students brainstorm search terms. I also take notes about the research they want but can’t access. The next day I do that research in my usual office, print out appropriate articles and webpages, and send them along with another faculty member on class nights.

I came into this role blindly, uncertain how I could effectively communicate and connect with nontraditional students in a setting that was unfamiliar to me. Through trial and error—and despite limited resources—I have found these processes help me provide the best reference help for incarcerated students.

Work the whitelist. Most prisons with internet access have a whitelist, a list of preapproved websites that people incarcerated at a specific facility are allowed to access. These lists might be just a mess of random URLs with no direction, website names, or descriptions, including some nonworking links and sites that aren’t useful for most inmates. But there may also be hidden gems.

After visiting each URL, I updated the whitelist to explain each site’s value and possible uses. I found many features that can serve students well: introductory Spanish lessons for a student who desperately wanted to learn the language, a legal dictionary, word games, and more. Even sites on the list that provide premium services that are typically cost-prohibitive to students, like McGraw Hill and ACT, often also have free blog articles whose subject areas might intrigue students.

A prison classroom is still a classroom, and students should never be underestimated.

Maintain your methods. When I first started working with incarcerated students, I noticed that some of my colleagues and I were skirting around academic phrases we use in our traditional classrooms. Instead of peer-reviewed, for example, I would say reliable. But a prison classroom is still a classroom, and students should never be underestimated.

When I teach information literacy to college freshmen, I presume they do not know these terms, but I define them as I’m speaking. I’ve learned to do the same in this setting, creating a more authentic experience and building up students’ research vocabulary. There is no reason to alter one’s teaching strategies, except to accommodate individual students as necessary or avoid potential triggers.

Support educational and personal interests. I meet with each student one-on-one for five to 10 minutes weekly. Discussing their personal interests, in addition to the educational materials they need, has helped me develop positive relationships—and be a better reference librarian. I once had a student who felt stuck when trying to write an analysis of a book character but had an affinity for personality tests. I was able to leverage this knowledge to aid them in their writing and research, and when I found new personality tests online, I could bring them in and discuss with them. These interactions can help students feel understood and remembered.

It’s incredibly easy to take ease of access to information for granted. I didn’t realize that until stepping into this new work setting, but it has been worth the challenge. I occasionally receive notes from students expressing their gratitude for my guidance. More importantly, I have built trust, enabling students to feel safe expressing their needs. I look forward to many more semesters of striving to bridge the access gap.


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