Critical Issues in Juvenile Detention Center Libraries

Editor’s Note: This paper was originally presented at ALA’s 2012 Midwinter Meeting during YALSA’s Midwinter Paper Presentation event on Trends Impacting Young Adult Services. The YALSA Midwinter Paper Presentation is an annual event sponsored by past presidents of YALSA to provide a venue for educators, librarians, students, and others interested in young adult librarianship to gather and explore a topic of current interest that impacts the field.’ 

By Jeanie Austin, project coordinator for Mix IT Up! at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science

There has been a recent rise in interest in both juvenile detention center librarianship and critical approaches to library and information science. This paper integrates information from critical, feminist, and poststructural pedagogies to provide a theoretical framework for providing library services to youth located in juvenile detention centers, to deconstruct ideas of “neutrality” in library services, and to frame librarianship as a site for enacting social and political change. The juvenile detention center library is positioned as a site for potentially interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. Tensions present in juvenile detention center library services (such as institutional limitations and access to technologies) and how youth and librarians can and do navigate these tensions within the library setting are described.


The public library is often positioned as politically neutral and serving the democratic purpose of providing access to all, independent of race, class, sexuality, or ability. This is not an inherent aspect in libraries or library services. A critical examination of the public library and an examination of the role of voice in democracy reveal that the library cannot be neutral. Instead, it potentially carries forward practices that continue to privilege the already-privileged, including White, middle-class, male, heterosexual, and able-bodied populations. An awareness of these issues is necessary for librarians hoping to meet the needs and interests of users and potential users of the library.

The library is a site of cultural and social reproduction and change. It is historically poised to convey information that recognizes and legitimates specific experiences and cultural knowledge over others. However, through an awareness of what McLaren outlines as the intimate tie between cultural reproduction, history, and privilege, and by incorporating principles from critical, feminist, and poststructural pedagogical practice, the library can become a site in which power differentials are addressed and transformed.1

This paper is borne from my own work with a juvenile detention center library, but broadly addresses issues present in public and juvenile detention center librarianship. In focusing primarily on juvenile detention center libraries as a site for political and social change that attempts to address inequalities present in both juvenile justice and in library services, I will draw from a number of theoretical positions rather than generate any new experimental data. This method is used for two reasons. First, theory informs and organizes the ways in which library policy and services are shaped. Underlying individual assumptions, conscious or unconscious ideologies, and institutional (and institutionalized) cultures set the boundaries of current library practice. Second, Bernstein shows that much of the work that attempts to establish effectiveness of programs in prisons (and, subsequently, in juvenile detention centers) has used reduced rates of recidivism as an illustration of efficacy.2 This measure does not account for institutionalized and interpersonal challenges that youth will face after their release from the detention center. (Among these are difficulties in reentering the traditional educational setting, which will be discussed later in this paper.) Considering the multiple institutions that youth encounter can inform the ways in which libraries serve youth, and the ways in which individual libraries and librarians act as youth advocates within the larger community. The juvenile detention center library is the focus of this paper because the complexity of providing critical library services is magnified in this setting. The juvenile detention center library also provides a site for anti-racist political action through the potential interruption of the school-to-prison pipeline. An understanding of the complex interactions between youth, organizations, and the larger society can lend insight into how the library is not a neutral arbiter of information, and that library and information services have larger social and political implications. In this way, the juvenile detention center library provides a case study for more generalized library and information practice.

At the national scale, there are large racial and educational disparities found between youth in detention centers and their counterparts in the general public. A census taken on February 24, 2010 showed that there were 24,119 youth (under age 21) in juvenile detention centers;17,061 of those youth were identified as races other than White (Black, Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Other).3 In total, 20,312 were male, and 14,604 of those males were classified as youth of color. An obvious disparity exists for Black males, who make up 41 percent of the juvenile detention center population, and 14 percent of the general population for comparatively the same age range.4 Additionally, youth in detention centers are more likely than youth in the general public to not enroll in school or to function at levels beneath the educational level equivalent to their ages.5

This may be due, at least in part, to the “school-to-prison pipeline” described by Wald and Losen in a special issue of New Directions for Youth Development that concentrated on this topic.6 Within the pipeline, a disproportionate number of poor and minority youth (mostly male) are likely to encounter disciplinary actions in the school setting.7 In many cases, these disciplinary actions (expulsion and suspension) are coupled with review processes for readmission that limit the ability of students to return to the day school setting.8 The convolution of the label of potential dangerousness and race (primarily Black) greatly influences the decisions of school administrators and teachers to issue expulsions or suspensions.9 Arbitrary and subjective factors, such as dress and friendships, as well as medical or psychological assessments are used to determine the “likelihood” of dangerousness. The increasing presence of security guards and police officers on campus is also equated with the possibility that youth will be removed from the school setting.10 Cultural incompetency on the part of educators further negatively affects youth of color, who are frequently perceived by educators as threatening the their control of the classroom.11 All of the above factors are correlated with a higher likelihood that youth will be detained or incarcerated. In short, as Osher et al. state, “Institutionalized racism, bias, and cultural incompetence, which contribute to disparities in all areas, continue to feed the pipeline.”12

The juvenile detention center library can act as a proving ground for interrupting educational experiences that are “increasingly punitive and isolating” for poor and minority youth.13 Libraries in detention centers can disrupt or interrupt the flow of youth from schools into prisons by following the suggestions of Fenning and Rose for educational spaces seeking to create such an interruption–by clearly teaching expected behaviors (and addressing hidden curricula that inform those expectations), by being culturally competent, and by involving multiple stakeholders in the process.14

Ending or interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline is to address “a political problem, not a scientific or technical one.”15 Juvenile detention center libraries must be positioned as a political project that counters the narratives of library neutrality in order to work against the racial inequalities inherent in the pipeline. Juvenile detention center librarians that desire to undertake the political project of interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline must take a critical approach to providing library services. This requires an examination of the theoretical concepts historically embedded in public library practice and tensions that are specific to providing library services in the juvenile detention center.

Reframing the library

A growing body of research seeks to reframe the library and present-day library practices. This research provides the context for thinking about the public library as a political space with historically based practices that continue to have ramifications in current library services. These include examining the library as both a physical place and as a social space.

The historical political and “moral” objectives of public libraries are well documented. During the last 200 years, the language of improvement (increased socialization into the middle class, or passivity) of readers was prevalently used for the inclusion of individuals previously barred from public institutions as potential library users in the United States and Britain.16 As institutions, public libraries have also been sites of moral and social conflict and negotiation. What is acceptable to read, and what is unacceptable to make available is a conversation echoed in the frequent practice of challenging library materials or somehow limiting access to those materials.17 As Hewitt states, the narrative of “libraries as arsenals of democracy” is limited and may be in contradiction with historically situated current library practices.18 Further, feminist pedagogical scholarship has shown that notions of democracy and voice are limited by factors often unexplored in discourse surrounding democracy as a public good. Individual and group access to the public sphere (the space in which democracy occurs) has historically been limited by stated and unstated constraints related to marginalized positions within society and is complicated by power negotiations and individual locations within institutions.19 Library practice that aims to create social and political change that addresses disparities in information access and encourages critical reflection must recognize and seek to remedy these limitations.

The public library is implicated in historic processes of socialization similar to (and often overlapping with) the same processes that influenced the creation of public schooling. Critical, feminist, anti-racist, and intersectional pedagogy has focused on how and in what ways schools can act as a site for addressing inequalities in education. In the same way, libraries can be examined as sites for social change. These pedagogies seek to create thoughtful and reflective educational practices that position educators and students as working together to make social transformation. Librarians that are working to transform librarianship can benefit from knowledge of these pedagogies, as can librarians working to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline through informed library practice in the juvenile detention center.

Library as Place

The meaning of the library is communicated through what types of materials are available, their content, and to whom they appeal or attempt to appeal. Funding and physical room may limit what can be incorporated into the library, but these issues are mediated by the gatekeeping activates of the librarian. In many cases, librarians select what will be included in or excluded from the library collection, and what materials will be removed. Inokushi and Nozaki show that this is a value-laden process:

A library is inherently selective, as it cannot house all of the documents (or books) available in the world. As such, librarians have to be discerning in their acquisition practices. … Through these processes, librarians tend to select and promote certain kinds of texts, cultural artifacts, and information. That is, a certain type of culture is promoted over others, and the selective traditions function as value systems, or sorting and organizing principles, for librarians in various cultures.20

Users may negotiate the library by selecting specific materials to meet their needs and by requesting materials that are not available in the library (either through interlibrary loan or purchase requests). They may also intentionally subvert the library to meet their own needs and desires. These are important aspects of the library as a social space, but they are bounded by the characteristics that define the library as a place, such as physically available materials and the organizational structures that facilitate access to materials.

Libraries are typically organized through classification systems, such as the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system. The DDC divides the materials in the library into ten disciplinary categories, which revisions have left mostly intact. Kapitzke summarizes the work of Weigand as showing underlying sexism and racism in the DDC may still be affecting present library practices.21 Kapitzke also explores how categories of fiction and non-fiction draw boundaries between reading for pleasure and reading for information.22 Classification systems and divisions by genre can reinstate the dominant narrative of “authoritative” ways of knowing, which often work to the exclusion of non-dominant perspectives and experiences.

Cataloguing, which aims to promote access to library materials through the production of surrogate information, has also been critiqued. The logic structures that inform classification are ingrained with gender values that privilege historically masculine ways of thought and refuse the relational aspects of knowing and coming to know.23 Standardized language of classification (the words that are used to increase access to library materials during catalogue searches) can have racist, sexist, classist, colonialist, and homophobic implications.24 Logic structures and classification languages can obscure access to materials, and may reinstate ways of knowing that center the already privileged. These structures can present a hegemonic force that favors a U.S. perspective.25

The library collection and organizational structures relay information about for whom and for what the library is intended. In addition to these physical aspects of library services, the interactions and services provided in the library carry implicit messages and values.

The Library as Space

The public library is a site of social interaction, ideally attempting to appeal to broad and diverse areas of interest and populations. As agencies, many public libraries are concerned not only with providing access to materials, but also to the underlying knowledge structures that allow individuals to use materials and resources available in the library. This information is transmitted through encounters with library staff and participation in library programming. Programming offered often relates to the development of specific literacies–accessing databases or conducting effective searches for materials, specific digital literacies, and, in some cases, textually-based literacies and language learner programs.

The individual encounters and programming described above are broadly referred to under the heading of Information Literacy. Information Literacy services facilitate the ways in which users of the library come to know what may be available to know. An increased awareness of how to use resources available at the library (such as catalogs and interlibrary loan) entails an understanding of what is contained in the library collection and what is excluded. While increasing information literacy in the library increases users’ ability to find what they seek, it may also veil the processes by which materials are selected or excluded from the library, including what materials are available to be included in the collection and how general availability may be influenced by historical inequities, real or perceived power imbalances between librarians and library users, or how some services, such as interlibrary loan, provide access but do not change the meaning conveyed by the physical library collection (as loaned books are not incorporated into the borrowing library’s collection).26

Libraries and the availability of library services in America have, like other institutions, also been steeped in racist practice (both as an institution and by individuals). Publicly funded libraries have been implicated in the relationship of denying educational opportunities to slaves and prohibiting access to Black patrons.27 Librarianship, as a profession, has historically remained primarily White, although there have been numerous efforts (some blocked and others carried forth) to create a more inclusive profession over the last one hundred years.28 Activists and sympathizers have instigated the majority of efforts for racial inclusivity. They have historically pushed for reform and undertaken the endeavor of making library services available to people of color and to shift racial disparities within the profession.

Libraries and librarians have also acted for social resistance and fought against the exclusion of African-Americans from public institutions. Individuals and communities raised funds, established library services through donations, and created special collections focused on the Black experience in America and bibliographic guides for providing culturally competent library services to African-Americans.29 These efforts were complemented by activist endeavors to provide access to libraries during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.30

Community libraries have been established to provide access to individuals barred from the public library or given access only to specific resources. In many cases, it is difficult to trace the histories of these libraries, as they do not benefit from the privilege of being complicit in reiterating dominant narratives. Still, some of these institutions remain. One such institution is the Douglass Center and Library.31 Established in Champaign, Illinois, it had the financial support of the local government and community but was run by community members concerned with providing access to education and library materials to the African-American community. The Douglass library, now incorporated into the local public library system, was and is a site of racial activism.32

Due to their knowledge of the functions of the library, librarians are poised to provide library services that disrupt or interrupt institutionalized racism. This must be a political effort that involves a critical examination the librarian’s own belief system, library materials and organization, the philosophy undergirding library practice, and engagement in educational actions that build the critical skills of librarians and library users.

Critical Information Literacy

An increasing amount of literature focuses on information professionals as critical educators.33 Much of this work concentrates specifically on information literacy programming as a site for critical engagement within academic libraries (standards are maintained by the Association of College and Research Libraries). However, the term increasingly applies to programming in public and special libraries.34 Critical information literacy programming that incorporates feminist, queer, and poststructural theory builds on Kapitzke’s idea that “information work is economic and political action.”35 Critical information literacy contextualizes libraries as non-neutral spaces, questions notions of “authoritative” sources, focuses on the processes by which knowledge is and has been produced over time, shifts the locus of library programming to participants, and explores how knowing and coming to know is socially and individually situated.36 Critical information literacy can also be used to problematize the link Kapitzke describes as existing between “educational outcomes” and “the imperatives of global capitalism and the knowledge economy.”37

An examination of the juvenile detention center library reveals how a critical approach to library services and information literacy programming can be a political act that interrupts the school-to-prison pipeline. In order for the juvenile detention center library to function as a site of interruption, the library and library services must be positioned to address historical exclusions and inequalities present in library services, the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline (individually and within communities), and individual youth encounters with institutions. Librarians in juvenile detention centers can do this by working with youth to increase their information literacy skills. Librarians can clearly articulate the expected behaviors in the juvenile detention center and public library by discussing how and why rules may vary from setting to setting, by being culturally competent and building the library collection in collaboration with the youth, and by involving multiple stakeholders in the process.

Providing juvenile detention center library services as a political act is not a straightforward process. Theories that have historically informed library practices must be examined and addressed. Additionally, librarians providing these services must be aware of the tensions inherent in the juvenile detention center and find meaningful ways to approach these tensions. Tensions relate to youth’s previous experiences of educational spaces, providing culturally competent books that both speak to the youth’s lived experiences and advance opportunities for transformation and reflection, and an examination of how youth suggestions can contribute to collection development but how youth voice is mediated (consciously or unconsciously) by setting.

Critical Issues in Juvenile Detention Center Libraries

Publications that address the provision of library services to youth in juvenile detention centers have focused on advocating for libraries in juvenile detention centers, developing best practices, and positioning the library within the functions of juvenile detention.38 Recent articles also focus on providing outreach and programming in the juvenile detention center library.39 Collectively, these works suggest or address critical issues in juvenile detention center librarianship. Critical issues include youth’s reading levels, life experiences, interests in materials (and how access to materials is mediated within juvenile detention centers), physical removal from community resources, as well as the racial makeup of populations in the juvenile detention center. Additionally, youth in the detention center constitute a population largely underserved by libraries. They are physically removed from the library, and often have limited access to information materials. Providing library services to underserved populations is important in addressing inequalities.40 Incorporating research from critical, feminist, and poststructuralist pedagogies provides insight into how the juvenile detention center library can be positioned as educational space for social transformation.

In their exploration of Critical Race Theory and physical representations of children of color in board books, Hughes-Hassell and Cox situate the availability of non-Eurocentric representations in picture books as a necessary aspect of creating self-esteem and positive self-concept for children of color, but show that these representations are often not made available due to commercial interests.41 Physical representation of race is not sufficient in meeting the needs of children of color. Books must also be culturally conscious and reflect the “uniqueness as well as the universality” of children’s experiences.42

The same holds true for materials selected for youth in the juvenile detention center. Materials that do not include culturally conscious information will, at best, not interest youth in the center, and at worst may perpetuate power imbalances already present in education and library services–power imbalances that deeply effect Black male youth.43 Further, materials may be culturally competent but fail to link universal experiences to opportunities for reflection on individual experiences and encounters with new information (or vice versa). Books that essentialize the experiences of youth in the detention center may leave youth feeling ostracized or invalidated. Books that fail to recognize the role of race, racism, and lived experiences in character development may do the same. Relevant reading materials should link to the cultures of the youth, foster insight and discourse about society and politics, educate, and link to cultural histories of literacy as it relates to social and political theory and action, contribute to individual well-being, discuss collective struggle, provide models for living, and realistically portray the world.44

Reading and reflecting on read materials are considered to be key aspects of identity formation or restructuring during adolescence. This is of special note when considering that time in the detention center may be one of the first instances that youth have been removed from many day-to-day stresses that limit the likelihood of reading.45 While the detention center setting is fraught with a different set of stresses and restrictions than those faced outside of the center, youth may be more inclined to read in the center in order to remain occupied during times of inactivity. Reading serves multiple functions for youth in the detention center (and indeed for all youth). It facilitates escapism, transformation, comparison, relationships to characters, and potentially validates or diminishes the reader.46 These possibilities are not inherent in reading as an act, but are created through a process of identity restructuring (or formation) through learning that is “not the assimilation of knowledge, but rather the examination of new knowledge in relation to old knowledge,” in which the old knowledge also involves the individual’s lived experiences.47 The relationship between reading and identity formation underscores the importance of including culturally relevant books in the juvenile detention center library collection. It also illustrates the need to create collections that provide opportunities for mental escape and personal and social transformation. Libraries in juvenile detention centers must meet youth where they are (in their experiences) and provide opportunities to go beyond those experiences. It is through this work that students and educators can come together to disrupt the power structures in education that have often contributed to the marginalization of youth in the detention center and can make efforts to transform the world.48 In working toward social transformation, juvenile detention center librarians must be aware of the complexities of this work as they occur in educational systems and are sometimes magnified in the detention center setting. This includes an understanding of how new knowledge is created, how youth voice and silence can be mediated by context, and how library services can be strengthened by forming alliances and providing programming that supports a variety of community resources.

Poststructural analysis of reading shows that “audiences are fragmented and multiple in their production of any meanings that a text might have” and that “reading is a negotiation between the reader and the text.”49 Librarians in the juvenile detention center may attempt to anticipate the interests of youth when choosing library materials, but these assumptions will be limited. The process of selection can be augmented by youth suggestions for topics and specific book recommendations. Youth suggestions will also be structured in the current historical moment and the experiences of the youth. In addition to this, youth interests may be mediated by the detention center as a setting, and specific youth (such as those with higher literacy levels) may feel more comfortable recommending books than others. This shows that material selection in the juvenile detention center library is a complicated negotiation between place, social structures, and individual actors.

Narratives that surround the juvenile detention center as a setting will shape (and in some cases limit) the types of books that youth will be able to express interest in reading. Narratives of success or failure, reform or recidivism, will influence what materials youth suggest. Librarians in the detention center must be aware of how policies (formal and informal) that shape library practice will be recognized and, in some cases, internalized by youth in the center. In addition, youth in the center may engage in strategic silences.50 Silences may be influenced by the possibility of expressing information that will inform sentencing, of not revealing their literacy skill levels, of refusing to fit under specific labels, or of resisting the narratives that surround the detention center setting. Strategic silences may also be influenced by settings in which access to the library or to library materials is framed as a privilege or a reward for behaving in accord with the rules of the center. Librarians in detention center settings should not assume that youth are always able or obligated to provide information about what types of library materials they would like to access. An examination of silences in the juvenile detention center library can inform collection development that seeks to meet vocalized, unexpressed, and unrecognized or unrecognizable youth interests and information needs.

Moments of interaction between librarians and youth in the detention center provide the context for pedagogical practice. During these interactions, youth communicate information about the library, its organization, and the collection. Librarians can use these conversations and interactions to expand on youth reflection, as well as to learn more about youth responses to materials and general library services. Collection development and library organization can then occur in cooperation with the youth, rather than through top-down or prescriptive processes.

Access may also be mediated by what types of materials can be brought into the center. Library services in the detention center occur within a complex institutionalized justice system that may limit or prevent access to certain materials (or types of materials) due to policy. These policies exist out of negotiations that are concerned not only with what types of materials can and cannot be accessed (as determined by the legal institution and social opinion), but also with the physical characteristics of materials (that may or may not be viewed as potential weapons). Policy may influence whether or not audio materials can be incorporated into the detention center library, and determine the attendant consequences of including Internet or computer access and access to audio materials.

When available, computer access, whether to the Internet or to specific software and materials (such as community archival records and encyclopedias), can be used to extend the library collection. Providing virtual access expands the library and provides opportunities for librarians and youth to work together to learn and to develop critical skills. Librarians can teach searching skills related to information access that will be useful after youth leave the detention center. Searching individually created information provides context for exploring how knowledge is constructed or valued, critical evaluation of which knowledge is privileged over others, and can offer counter-narratives to depictions of youth, (specifically youth of color) as they are present in mass media.51 These skills can be explicitly linked to community institutions and organizations that may support youth upon their release, such as public libraries and community centers. These interactions also provide opportunities to discuss individual learning experiences with youth and how these may be tied to social and political issues, as well as issues of access to technology and the global economic system that surrounds technology production and distribution. Such discussions can counteract the isolation youth may have felt in other educational spaces.

Access to specific technologies (such as CD players for audiobooks or computers) may entail increased surveillance while youth are using the technology.52 This surveillance may limit the ability of youth to engage in reflective and transformative practices. Youth and librarians can work together to find methods for balancing the effects of surveillance on reflection by engaging in guided critical practice (as described above), or by mindfully returning to topics after the youth have had opportunities for reflection. As noted above, while the juvenile detention center setting inherently limits youths’ freedom of movement and expression, the lack of disruptions and large amounts of time spent in the juvenile detention center can provide youth with opportunities to read and reflect that they may not have easy access to outside of the center.53 Returning to topics such as the content of books or audiobooks, or materials accessed using the computer, may provide youth with the opportunity to discuss their reflections. Librarians seeking to encourage youth to share their reflections must be cognizant of the tensions around voice and silence described above, and also critically evaluate their own desires for youth to share what they have learned and examine their preconceived notions of how youth reflection will occur.54

Youth in the juvenile detention center are physically removed from resources. Library programming can be modeled on critical information literacy that links youth to community resources. Discussing what resources are available, where, and why can reveal critical needs in the community. Including materials about relevant community resources in the library can facilitate these discussions and may provide youth with insight into resources available to them upon their release. Public and community libraries and community centers are key resources to discuss with youth. These public and community resources may prove essential for youth that do not return to formal educational settings. Critical awareness of the public library, including information about how to request books not in the public library collection, may increase the likelihood that youth feel comfortable requesting materials. It may also lead to an increased political and social awareness about necessary resources that are not available in the community and the ways in which issues in the community, especially those that center on race and class, have been framed in the larger discourse.’  Librarians seeking to link to youths’ lived experience and examine social disparities in their communities can use Kumasi’s model of “cultural inquiry” to shape their work with youth in the detention center, and can link youth to community programs that are or can be organized around these issues.55

Conversely, organizations that could be beneficial to youth in detention centers may not be aware of opportunities to provide services to these youth. Juvenile detention center librarians can provide outreach services to bridge this gap in awareness by approaching community organizations with opportunities to link to youth in the center. Reaching out to valuable institutions or organizations that previously have not considered offering services to detained youth, or that are more willing to offer services in the juvenile detention center if there is an existing connection, is one of the myriad of ways that juvenile detention center librarians can act as advocates for youth in the center. Community organizations and individuals from the community can offer invaluable insight into what materials should be included in the juvenile detention center library collection. Relationships between community organizations and the juvenile detention center (or, specifically, the juvenile detention center library) can build critical awareness of the issues surrounding juvenile justice in the larger community, and can link youth to resources that will be highly valuable to them upon their release.


Many librarians providing services in juvenile detention centers are undoubtedly already aware of some or all of the issues discussed herein. They skillfully navigate setting, collection development, and the complexity of youth voice and community involvement to provide library services in the best interests of youth in the center. From a review of best practices, however, it seems that much of this knowledge is tacitly held and accumulated through experience. Framing the juvenile detention center library as a site for interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline may not only validate the experiences and knowledge of juvenile detention center librarians, but may also provide additional arsenal in conversations that dispute the function of juvenile detention center library services, that label youth in the detention center as unarguably dangerous, and that contest the need for additional library services or staffed libraries.

This examination may also facilitate the entry of new librarians into juvenile detention center library services. Making explicit the tacit and often deftly executed actions of juvenile detention center librarians, and the motivations that inform providing these services, may lessen the intimidation that librarians feel when moving out of a framework that considers only traditional library services and into the juvenile detention center setting. Framing the project as political and anti-racist may provide impetus for librarians who doubt their own ability or opportunities to work toward political and social transformation through library practice or that are frustrated in their efforts to provide such services in traditional library context.

While informed library practice in the juvenile detention center is a political act, juvenile detention center libraries and librarians are positioned within a network of institutions that do not always work in tandem. By partnering with community organizations, and with specific juvenile detention center staff and educators, librarians seeking to work with youth in order to interrupt the pipeline can pool resources and create more concerted efforts, can share best practices and lessons learned, and can link youth to resources that will be helpful after they are released from the center.

Librarians seeking to undertake library projects for political and social change will benefit from a reflective process in which they question their own position, what narratives have informed their desires, and what historical developments and ideologies have informed institutional practice. They should also be aware of what message the library as place and space conveys to users and to potential users. The library can be a site of discovery and feelings of belonging, but librarians should not unquestioningly accept libraries as institutions that are neutral or unproblematically democratic. The public library is historically biased toward dominant narratives that may exclude many to validate few. An awareness of this reveals the importance of providing library materials and services with the goal of addressing present inequalities and positioning libraries as institutions that dynamically and actively respond to histories of racism and oppression.

A growing body of publications and conferences are addressing the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and specifically transgendered individuals within the prison system.56 An incorporation of theories and methods that detail the experiences of LGBTQ individuals within the prison system will further inform library practice within the juvenile detention center, and may provide librarians and information professionals with a deeper understanding of how individual and intersectional identities are created and controlled within state institutions, including the library.

Librarians are uniquely positioned to provide access to information about the ways in which a variety of institutions have been shaped by issues of oppression and, by providing this information, to raise public awareness and facilitate social and political change. Librarians working as advocates, for youth or for all library patrons, will gain invaluable insight through this understanding, and will be more able to address critical issues in their own communities or patron bases, thus better meeting the needs current and potential library patrons. Developing meaningful and diverse collections, incorporating a variety of theoretical approaches into library services, understanding the historical narratives of library practice and the social and political processes that have and continue to privilege specific populations, and making available information that describes alternatives to the current distribution of power are ways in which librarians can (and do) work to ensure that the library serves a role in social and political transformation.


  1. Peter McLaren, “Critical Pedagogy: A Look at the Major Concepts,” in The Critical Pedagogy Reader, 2nd edition, eds. Antonia Darder, Marta P. Baltodano, and Rodolfo D. Torres (New York: Routledge, 2009), 61-83.
  2. Lee Bernstein, America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
  3. M. T. Sickmund, J. Sladky, W. Kang, and C. Puzzanchera, “Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement,” (accessed January 12, 2012).
  4. Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, “Racial and Ethnic Composition: Percentage of U.S. Children Ages 0—17 by Race and Hispanic Origin, Selected Years 1980—2010 and Projected 2030—2050,” (accessed January 12, 2012).
  5. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, “Youth’s Needs and Services: Findings from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement,” Bulletin (2010), (accessed June 3, 2011).
  6. Johanna Wald and Daniel J. Losen, “Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline,” New Directions for Youth Development 99 (2003): 9-15.
  7. Russell J. Skiba, Robert S. Michael, Abra Carroll Nardo, and Reece L. Peterson, “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment,” (June 2000), (accessed January 13, 2012).
  8. Ronnie Casella, “Punishing Dangerousness Through Preventative Detention: Illustrating the Institutional Link Between School and Prison,” New Directions for Youth Development 99 (2003): 55-70.
  9. Ibid., 55.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Pamela Fenning and Jennifer Rose, “Overrepresentation of African American Students in Exclusionary Discipline: The Role of School Policy,” Urban Education 42, no. 6 (2007): 536-560.
  12. David M. Osher, Mary Magee Quinn, Jeff M. Poirier, and Robert B. Rutherford, “Deconstructing the Pipeline: Using Efficacy, Effectiveness, and Cost-Benefit Data to Reduce Minority Youth Incarceration,” New Directions for Youth Development 99 (2003): 109.
  13. Wald and Losen, “Defining and Redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline,” 11.
  14. Fenning and Rose, “Overrepresentation of African American Students in Exclusionary Discipline: The Role of School Policy.”
  15. Osher et al., “Deconstructing the Pipeline: Using Efficacy, Effectiveness, and Cost-Benefit Data to Reduce Minority Youth Incarceration,” 111.
  16. Martin Hewitt, “Confronting the Modern City: The Manchester Free Public Library, 1850—80,” Urban History 27, no. 1 (2000): 62-88; Catherine Sheldrick Ross, “Metaphors of Reading,” The Journal of Library History, Philosophy & Comparative Librarianship, 22 (1987): 147-63.
  17. For a historical perspective, see Paul S. Boyer, Purity in Print: Book Censorship in America from the Gilded Age to the Computer Age, 2nd edition (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003); for more recent information, see American Library Association, “Banned and Challenged Books,” (accessed January 3, 2011).
  18. Hewitt, “Confronting the Modern City: The Manchester Free Public Library, 1850—80,” 62.
  19. Carmen Luke, “Feminist Politics in Radical Pedagogy,” in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, eds. Jennifer Gore and Carmen Luke (New York: Routledge, 1992), 25-53; Alison Jones, “Talking Cure: The Desire for Dialogue,” in Democratic Dialogue in Education: Troubling Speech, Disturbing Silence, ed. Megan Boler (New York: Peter Lang, 2010), 57-67.
  20. Hiromitsu Inokuchi and Yoshiko Nozaki, “Critical Approach to Asia Through Library Collections and Instruction in North America: Selection of Culture and Counter-Hegemonic Library Practices,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier (Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2010), 237.
  21. Cushla Kapitzke,“Information Literacy: A Review and Poststructural Critique,” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy 26, no. 1 (2003): 53-66.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Hope Olson, “How We Construct Subjects: A Feminist Analysis,” Library Trends 56, no. 2 (2007): 509-541.
  24. Sanford Berman, “Bibliography,” (accessed November 29, 2011).
  25. Ed McKennon, “Importing Hegemony: Library Information Systems and U.S. Hegemony in Canada and Latin America,” Radical History Review 95 (2006): 45-69.
  26. Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Ernie Cox, “Inside Board Books: Representations of People of Color,” The Library Quarterly 8 (2010): 211-230; Hiromitsu and Nozaki, “Critical Approach to Asia Through Library Collections and Instruction in North America: Selection of Culture and Counter-Hegemonic Library Practices,” 237-248; Kapitzke, “Information Literacy: A Review and Poststructural Critique,” 53-66.
  27. Maurice Wheeler and Debbie Johnson-Houston, “A Brief History of Library Services to African-Americans,” American Libraries 35 (2004): 42-45.
  28. E. J. Josey, “Race Issues in Library History,” in Encyclopedia of Library History, eds. Wayne A. Weigand and Donald G. Davis (New York: Garland Publishing, 1994), 533-537.
  29. Wheeler and Johnson-Houston, “A Brief History of Library Services to African-Americans.”
  30. Donald G. Davis, “Breaking the Bondage with Books: Libraries in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project,” in Libraries in Times of Utopian Thoughts and Social Protests–The Libraries of the Late 1960-ies and the 1970-ies (Boras: Journal of Swedish Library Research, 2002), 157-168.
  31. Michael Burns, “A History of the Douglass Center,” The Public I 10, no. 2 (2010): 1.
  32. Ibid.
  33. James Elmborg, “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32, no. 2 (2006): 192-199.
  34. Esther S. Grassian and Joan R. Kaplowitz, “Information Literacy Instruction,” in Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, 3rd edition, eds. Marcia J. Bates and Mary Niles Maack (New York: CRC Press, 2010), 2429-2440.
  35. Kapitzke, “Information Literacy: A Review and Poststructural Critique.”
  36. Jonathan Cope, “Information Literacy and Social Power,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, ed. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier (Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2010), 13-27; Sharon Ladenson, “Paradigm Shift: Utilizing Critical Feminist Pedagogy in Library Instruction,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier (Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2010), 105-112; Troy A. Swanson, “Information is Personal: Critical Information Literacy and Personal Epistemology,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier (Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2010), 265-277.
  37. Kapitzke, “Information Literacy: A Review and Poststructural Critique,” 62.
  38. Joni Richards Bodart, “It’s All About the Kids: Presenting Options and Opening Doors,” Young Adult Library Services 7, no. 1 (2008): 35-45; Katherine Dittmann, “Between the Lines: Girls in Detention Escape into Books,” The Monthly 37, no. 7 (2007), (accessed March, 2010); Jessica Fenster-Sparber, ‘ “New York’s Most Troubled Youth: Getting Caught Reading at Passages Academy Libraries,” Knowledge Quest 37, no. 1 (2008): 30-33; Patrick Jones, “Reaching Out to Young Adults in Jail,” Young Adult Library Services 3, no. 1 (2004): 16-19.
  39. Naomi Angier, Rebecca Cohen, and Jill Morrison, “Juvenile Justice Outreach: Library Services at Detention Centers,” PNLA Quarterly 66, no. 1 (2001): 16; Kelly Czarnecki, “Dream It Do It: At the Library! Technology Outreach at a Juvenile Detention Center,” Young Adult Library Services 7, no. 2 (2009): 22-24; Diana Herlad, “Booktalking to a Captive Audience,” School Library Journal 41, no. 5 (1995): 35-36.
  40. American Library Association, “Diversity,” (accessed January 13, 2012).
  41. Hughes-Hassell and Cox, “Inside Board Books: Representations of People of Color.”
  42. Ibid., 223.
  43. Alfred W. Tatum, “Engaging African American Males in Reading,” Educational Leadership 63, no. 5 (2006), 44-49.
  44. Ibid.; Alfred W. Tatum, “Toward a More Anatomically Complete Model of Literacy Instruction: A Focus on African Male Adolescents and Texts,” Harvard Educational Review 78, no. 1 (2008): 155-180.
  45. Bodart, “It’s All About the Kids: Presenting Options and Opening Doors.”
  46. Paulette M. Rothbauer, “Young Adults and Reading,” in Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals About Reading, Libraries, and Community, eds. Catherine Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 101-131.
  47. Dennis J. Sumara, “Fictionalizing Acts: Reading and the Making of Identity,” Theory into Practice 37 (1998): 205.
  48. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum, 2008).
  49. Patti Lather, “Post-Critical Pedagogies: A Feminist Reading,” in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, eds. Jennifer Gore and Carmen Luke (New York: Routledge, 1992), 155; Mimi Orner, “Interrupting the Calls for Student Voice in ‘Liberatory’ Education: A Feminist Poststructuralist Perspective,” in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, eds. Jennifer Gore and Carmen Luke (New York: Routledge, 1992), 80.
  50. Orner, “Interrupting the Calls for Student Voice in ‘Liberatory’ Education: A Feminist Poststructuralist Perspective.”
  51. Ernest Morrell, and Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, “Popular Culture and Critical Media Pedagogy in Secondary Literacy Classrooms,” International Journal of Learning 12, no. 9 (2006): 273-280; Maura Seale, “Information Literacy Standards and the Politics of Knowledge Production: Using User-Generated Content to Incorporate Critical Pedagogy,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, eds. Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier (Duluth, Minn.: Library Juice Press, 2010), 221-235.
  52. The issue of surveillance in disciplinary settings is discussed in Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995, 1975).
  53. Bodart, “It’s All About the Kids: Presenting Options and Opening Doors.”
  54. Jennifer Gore, “What We Can Do For You! What Can ‘We’ Do For ‘You’?,” in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, eds. Jennifer Gore and Carmen Luke (New York: Routledge, 1992), 54-73; Carmen Luke, “Feminist Politics in Radical Pedagogy,” in Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, eds. Jennifer Gore and Carmen Luke (New York: Routledge, 1992), 25-53.
  55. Kafi Kumasi,” Critical Inquiry: A Framework for Engaging Youth of Color in the Library,” The Journal of Libraries and Young Adults 1, no. 1 (2011), (accessed June 29, 2012).
  56. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, eds. Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2011).
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