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American Libraries Magazine Nov/Dec 2023

Making Friends

Many public libraries receive financial support from local Friends groups. The Friends of the San Quentin (Calif.) Prison Library, run by library workers who are incarcerated and outside volunteers, provides a similar service to the San Quentin State Prison library.

The organization raises money to add materials to the library’s collection. San Quentin librarians also maintain wish lists at a local bookstore and on Amazon to accept donations based on patron requests and educational and legal needs.

Another program the Friends group carried out was the San Quentin Book Fair for Incarcerated Parents. After receiving a donation of new children’s books before the holidays, people incarcerated at San Quentin were allowed to select books to send to the children in their lives. The book fair was largely run by the library’s 14 incarcerated staff members.

The Friends group has in-person monthly meetings and occasional phone meetings. Despite this, communication is a challenge. Incarcerated library staffers are heavily involved in the group’s work, but they are not allowed to participate in group emails. It can also be a challenge to engage would-be outside volunteers, as the group does not operate book sales like many Friends groups do.

Nevertheless, the group has ambitious goals, including expanding the book fair and adding a summer reading program–themed fair, providing library courses and technology help to incarcerated library staffers, and collaborating with public libraries to offer interlibrary loan, reference services, and reentry support after release.

Adapted from a narrative by Kristi Kenney, Friends of the San Quentin Prison Library cofounder; Gabriel Loiederman, San Quentin senior librarian; and Aaron Dahlstedt, San Quentin librarian.

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