A Book is a Bridge

Recognizing that prison populations include parents, libraries have expanded their partnerships beyond services such as book delivery and discussion groups. New York Public Library and The Free Library of Philadelphia, for example, offer spaces with children’s books and toys for live video visitation. Hennepin County Library and Seattle Public Library have programs called Read to Me that include recording incarcerated parents reading.


Over a decade ago at Multnomah County Library (MCL) in Portland, OR, staff members from adult and youth outreach presented three-part classes that included recording and sharing DVDs of inmates reading aloud that could be given to their families. It was well received but lacked consistent attendance, was logistically difficult, and subsequently ended. Conversations continued about the need for early literacy education for incarcerated parents (including those expecting), grandparents, aunts, uncles–anyone who may be a primary caregiver of children 0-5 years when released. Library outreach staff considered what did and didn’t work in the previous offering, streamlined to a single session class to be offered monthly and promoted to inmates taking the jail’s series of parenting classes, took the idea back to the correctional facilities, and A Book is a Bridge was born.


During each class, two outreach specialists share information about brain development, model reading aloud, show short videos of parents reading and talking with children, and–the best part–bring a selection of children’s books from which participants can choose books for their children and read aloud to them during video chats. Carol Cook, MCL outreach specialist, notes that A Book is a Bridge focuses on behaviors that will help the inmates become better caregivers when they get out.


How did A Book is a Bridge get the thumbs up? Nurturing existing relationships with jail superintendents and staff is important. Finding a champion among staff can help. Also, due to the library’s already visible presence in the jail, the inmates wanted more library programming and their feedback showed interest in wanting to learn more about early literacy and brain development. Sharing lessons learned from the previous parent literacy program aided in shaping the current program. It doesn’t hurt to be offering a program free to the jail either. In addition to A Book is a Bridge, library overview workshops and reading tutoring are offered, staff share books and activities at family events, and the visitors’ area was renovated for a more welcoming family space. Books, storytimes and literacy workshops are provided by Multnomah County Library and made possible, in part, by gifts to The Library Foundation. 


Outreach to correctional facilities requires more planning than usual. Library staff can’t grab books that morning or have someone easily cover if they’re sick or on vacation. Background checks and training about being in and moving around the jails are required, supply lists have to be submitted in advance before anything can be brought in, policies about which books — no board books or hard covers for one jail, but okay for another–have to be followed.


Partnering with a correctional facility may seem daunting. The payoff is seeing people open up and trust you and each other, commented Early Childhood Program Specialist Joanne McNamara, along with helping adults connect with their children through books and strengthening family ties. One inmate commented in an evaluation, “The ladies who visited are passionate about reading to kids and have fun energy. It reminds you to smile and makes you excited to open a book with a loved one!”


Kate Carter is the Youth Services Project Librarian at Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR. She serves on the ALSC Building Partnerships Committee and be reached at katec@multco.us

This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, and V. Outreach and Advocacy

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