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5/18/2015 12:19:00 PM
I get a lot (A LOT) of letters from people in prison – over 1000 in the last year. And I respond to every one. No, I am not a prison pen pal – I manage Georgetown Law Library’s Prison Mail Program. While this program had been around for many years, we experienced a tremendous increase in the amount of mail we received during the summer of 2014. I bear most of the responsibility for this, having expanded our policy on what and how much legal information we are able to provide. I also reached out to the other departments in the Law Center who receive mail from prisoners and encouraged them to send requests for materials to me. Regardless of the cause, the letters come in stacks an inch high every few days.
Rather than spend all day, every day, responding to them, I partnered with our Office of Public Interest and Community Service to recruit students looking for pro bono opportunities to work on the program. I have been fortunate enough to have 5-6 students each semester retrieving documents, addressing envelopes, writing response letters, and organizing all the mail we receive. I still personally answer dozens of letters each month and review all the student responses before they are sent. And I think constantly about the program – how to make it a better opportunity for the students, more helpful to the prisoners, less costly for the library.
I get asked sometimes – why do you spend so much time and energy trying to help “these people”? In response, I could cite statistics about wrongful convictions and the more than 1500 people who have been exonerated since 1989 of the crimes for which they were imprisoned. I could link to articles about the inhumane and unconstitutional conditions in so many of our nation’s prisons that go unnoticed and unaddressed even when prisoners die. But I have found the greatest resonance in the explanation given by Robin Steinberg, founder and executive director of The Bronx Defenders, in writing about what drives her as a public criminal defense attorney:
“Unfairness pervades our criminal justice system…The American criminal justice system applies unfair rules, in unfair ways, to those every other system in our society have already failed…There is no fair fight; it’s a slaughter.”1
Unequal access to information is part of this fundamental unfairness. Whether they are protesting the conditions of their confinement or the circumstances of their incarceration, indigent prisoners are tremendously restricted in their ability to access legal materials. They cannot afford counsel or books. No one can assist them in drafting documents or filling out grievance paperwork. Time in prison libraries is tightly regulated and books may be out-of-date, damaged, or insufficient. Most prisoners do not have access to online legal research tools, and may not have friends or family outside of prison to do even basic Google searches for them. The cost and process of acquiring writing materials and postage to ask for information may even be an obstacle.
I feel fortunate to have a library director who supports me in continuing and even expanding this project. But the letters will keep coming, and I worry we won’t be able to keep it up – just like every institution, our resources are finite. If more libraries are able to provide this type of service, the burden on any one of us will be lessened. I recognize that budgets are strained and time is scarce, but I also believe that a system weighted so heavily against those without wealth and knowledge will fail at administering anything that could properly be called justice.
For those who are interested in learning more, please check out AALL’s SR-SIS Standing Committee on Law Library Services to Prisoners for resources and publications. You can also attend a program at this year’s AALL Annual Meeting entitled, The Jail Mail Blues - How Law Libraries Support Access to Justice for Prisoners, where I will be presenting about my prison mail experiences with Stacy Etheredge (West Virginia University) and Michael Tillman-Davis (11th Circuit Court of Appeals).
1 Robin Steinberg’s essay, Fair Play, appears in a collection of essays edited by Professors Abbe Smith and Monroe Freedman entitled, How Can You Represent Those People?
Posted By 5/18/2015 12:19:00 PM
5/15/2015 10:20:07 AM
Library Outreach Inside the Building
Outreach. Does this phrase strike fear in your core? What does it mean? How
does a library “outreach” and to whom? Like many academic law libraries, Schmid
Law Library (University of Nebraska College of Law) strives to connect with our
law students by building good relationships and providing a positive
environment for the students during law school and beyond. This semester we’ve
informally outreached to our law students via March Madness, National Library Week
and research review for student’s working as summer clerks and associates. I’d
like to share these programs as examples of successful library outreach
opportunities inside the building.
Law Review March Madness
This is a new
program for Schmid Law Library; we borrowed the idea from Klutznik Law Library
(Creighton Law School). On the library’s first floor is an under-used bulletin
board. It’s been a personal goal to put up a display to improve the space – the
“Law Review Madness” event was a perfect fit (and took up almost a month of
display needs). Our promotion to the law school included:
Which Law Review will win?! Schmid Law Library is offering Law Review Madness 2015
during this season’s March Madness tournament. We’ll have brackets available on
Monday afternoon at the circulation desk for those who want to play along.
Completed brackets are due by noon on Wednesday, March 18th to the
law library circulation desk. The grand prize is a Golden Ticket for all-day
use of a study room of your choice AND bragging rights for winning the first
Law Review Madness tourney hosted by Schmid Law Library.
We wanted the
entire law school to participate even though students benefitted from winning
an all-day use of a study-room. There were 15 total participants, including
three faculty and staff. The bulletin board was a hit; many people were
impressed with the large bracket and clever law review modification. For
example, the Villanova team became the Villanova Law Review, as did Arkansas
(Arkansas Law Review). If a March Madness team had a law review associated with
the school, we modified the team name only.
National Library Week Celebration
Library hosts a community coffee for the law school each semester, usually on
Halloween and Valentine’s Day. This year we decided to host the spring semester
community coffee during National Library Week (April 13-17, 2015) to celebrate
libraries and connect with our students, faculty and staff. The community
coffee involves fruit, breakfast goodies and coffee or tea set up in the
library foyer for a meet and greet event. To promote library services, we
created a daily quiz highlighting a particular department; Monday was technical
services, Tuesday was circulation, Wednesday was Inter-Library Loan (ILL) - even
the IT department created a quiz! We gave away a prize box each day including;
gift cards to local bookstore, giveaways from our vendors, and office supplies
like highlighters. The prize box was a hit, especially with finals around the
corner; food is always appreciated and we promoted library services in a
creative format. The feedback we’ve received from students has been positive
and the quiz winners were excited about the great prize box.
a daylong research event to our students the past four years. This is a
refresher on basic legal research skills necessary for their summer jobs as
clerks and associates. The training involves several sessions including:
starting research tips, administrative law, Nebraska and Federal legislative
history research, free and low-cost alternative legal research on the web, and
practical tools and tips. The library provides donuts and coffee during the
morning and a pizza lunch for students who pre-register. We use a LibGuide for
each ResearchPalooza event; it includes the day’s agenda, links to relevant
resources, the registration form to RSVP for the event (and lunch) and contact
information for the librarians.
programming can be successful in the building! Fortunately we have a captured audience as
our law students spend hours each day in the library. These events are valuable
opportunities to continue building good relationships with our law school
community by tweaking established programs (the community coffee), trying
timely programming (Law Review Madness) and continuing to support our student’s
professional careers (ResearchPalooza).
Marcia L. Dority Baker is the Access Services Librarian at
the University of Nebraska College of Law, Schmid Law Library in Lincoln,
Nebraska. She can be reached via email; firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted By 5/15/2015 10:20:07 AM
5/15/2015 7:48:39 AM
Up, Up and Away
Last Friday, May 8, I was lucky enough to have a great seat for the WWII-era plane flyover of the National Mall. My office is in the part of Washington known as Penn Quarter, only a few blocks from the Natural History Museum, so I could go to the building rooftop and, with the help of binoculars that one of my attorney friends had the foresight to bring, I could not only see the planes, but could get a great up-close view of the markings on them.
It was a fun time; several of my colleagues came up to watch, and I was able to chat with both attorneys and staff that I might not otherwise see in the normal course of my workday. One of the attorneys who came up is new to our office, and I hadn’t really gotten a chance to talk with her at any length. Because we happened to be sitting next to each other, I was able to hear about her travels in her prior job, and to find out that she had attended Georgetown Law School when I was a reference librarian there.
My positive experience with the flyover has given me a new perspective on a change that’s coming to my work situation. I’ll be moving out of the library and heading to an attorney floor. I’ll still be the librarian, and the firm will still have a physical library; I just won’t be sitting in it. The firm has rented out my office to a sub-tenant, so for lack of another office on that floor (the library is on 2; the attorneys are on 6-8), I’ll be leaving my collection and joining my patrons.
I confess, my first reaction to this move was, “What? You’re not serious? That makes no sense!” I wasn’t sure exactly how I could do my job without ready access to my collection. Not wanting to sound like I wasn’t a team player, I tried to put a good face on it, but in reality, my head was spinning: How would I get my work done? How would I handle the technical services aspects of my job (routing, check-in, shelving books)? How would I know if a book was on the shelf or not if an attorney asked? How would I do reference if my collection was an elevator ride away?
Of course, once I’d had some time to think it over, I realized a lot of my job I do in my office. Most of my reference requests come over the phone or through email, and the few people that come to me in person can just come to a different office. In fact, they’ll be happy that they don’t have to walk as far to find me!
The tasks that really require me to be handling materials I can do in the morning when I first arrive at work, before most of the attorneys are in need of reference assistance. As for whether a book is on the shelf or not, well, that will be a bit of an inconvenience, but that’s not an everyday occurrence.
I’ve been paying attention to how often I really need to use the collection since I heard this news a few weeks ago, and it turns out, I mostly use online tools. Don’t misunderstand me, I still like to page through sets like the U.S. Code or C.F.R. in paper, but I don’t need to do that terribly often.
I also took advantage of the move to clean out a lot of old files. I smiled as I thought about the classes I’d taught five or ten years ago, but the materials went into the recycling bin all the same. As it turns out, almost everything I need for that part of my life is online too! I’m sure when moving day arrives, there will be plenty of boxes and books (not to mention knickknacks) to make the upward journey, but I’ll be flying with a lighter payload, to continue the plane analogy.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ll be much closer to my patrons. Rather than having to wait for a big event to see people, I’ll run into them on a regular basis. I’m hoping that this will allow me to be a more integrated part of their team, rather than someone they have to remember to call or email.
Once I’ve settled into my new digs, I’ll give you an update on how this new arrangement is working out. Whether I’m flying high, or have crashed and burned, I’ll let you know my lessons learned.
For more information on the flyover, including photos and video clips, see this site: http://ww2flyover.org/.
©Susan Ryan, 2015, Librarian, Seyfarth Shaw, LLP, Washington, DC
Posted By 5/15/2015 7:48:39 AM