Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rite of Passage: NYPL's partnership with Passages Academy

How do you make readers out of people who can't get to the library? If you're a superhero librarian like Lindsy Serrano, you go where you're needed. Lindsy (who is an editor of this blog) and her colleagues at the New York Public Library got out from behind their desks and brought the idea of literacy into the juvenile corrections facilities in their library district.

Lindsy is a Senior Librarian for NYPL and explains below some of her strategies for reaching kids that not many people have taken time to reach. She also blogs at

Tell us about the program.
Starting in 2006, I was in a group of librarians at the New York Public Library (NYPL) that participated in a formal outreach program with Passages Academy, a multi-site correctional school run by New York City's Department of Education (DoE) and Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) . The librarians who visited Passages were usually working in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where Passages Academy sites were located. They were also trained as Young Adult librarians. We visited about once a month to talk to Passages students about the public libraries and what we had to offer, we also did book talks and were able to bring in books for the students to keep. Each librarian had their own programming style. I liked to play games like Pictionary and Charades and I would always save discarded books in good shape to give away to the students as well. Other librarians had the class become an impromptu focus group for YALSA's Quick Picks committee or had writing workshops.

Why did your patrons need this program?
In New York City, over five thousand young adults are taken into custody by the DJJ. While in detention, they do not have easy access to books, and literacy is not always a priority. I found it interesting that prisons for adults must have libraries in them but they are not required for juvenile detention centers, especially when studies show that a higher literacy rate will play a vital role in an incarcerated teen's rehabilitation process. It was very important for NYPL to visit, to give them access to books that they might not already have, support the increidble work that the school librarians already did, and to make sure students knew that the library was available to them after their release.

What were some of the challenges for the librarians during the program?
Librarians faced similar challenges that you would have in mainstream high schools, things like unruly students and difficult teachers, but there were also some challenges more specific to the space. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the security system. The DoE and DJJ didn't always agree about the importance of a visit or communicated with each other about upcoming events. Because of this, just getting into the facility was a challenge. Sometimes security guards would not know about your visit and not let you in, or make you late for your classes because they had to wait for permissions from school administration. Sometimes you would get to the school and find out that you needed extra ID or there was a new security protcal that you didn't know about. It was also hard to bring the books in for the students sometimes because different sites had different rules about what their students could possess. Some places allowed paperbacks but no hardcovers, some didn't allow anything at all. Once I brought library cards for the students to keep but couldn't give them out in fear of them being turned into a weapon. So there were a lot of challenges! And really, the only way to avoid these challenges would be lots and lots of preparation, much more than you would do for normal outreach. I would get the school librarian to work with me to make sure I was on the roster of who was coming in, and I would double check to see what I could bring in. Sometimes I would even ship the books I was going to give away to the school ahead of time so I wouldn't have to carry it all on the day of the event.

What would you do differently if you had another shot?
The main things I would do to make this partnership better would be to make program even more consistant, and try to make it a part of the library's already established Correctional Services Program, with mainly works with Rikers' Island. Working with Passages Academy meant trying to balance the needs of both the DoE and the DJJ so being a part of a formal department would have been very helpful when trying to book visits. I would also have loved to do larger scale programs at Passages, such as author visits or arts programs. The amazing school librarians that work at Passages do a wonderful job and I wish we could have supported them more in their work.

What's Next?
Working with Passages was such a great experience, and I know that librarians are still doing wonderful outreach when their branch allows it (I am no longer doing outreach at Passages because I transferred from the Bronx). I am currently working on a DIY author series, where craft book authors visit the library and talk about publishing their books while they teach us a new skill (knitting, embroidery, calligraphy, etc)

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