The ENABLED Librarian: Where There is No Library or Librarian

  January 01, 2018 |    Guest Blogger William N. Myhill, J.D., Director of Legal Research & Writing, Burton Blatt Institute, Syracuse University

Recently I've begun to wonder whether libraries can operate without a librarian. Some state and local school budgets have reduced or eliminated library staff funding. I've also been wondering what do people do for library services if they have no library. These questions have led me to wonder what Project ENABLE might offer schools, librarians, and communities in these situations.


Perhaps you are wondering how I've come to this line of thinking. Here's the back story. As co-creator of Project ENABLE, presently I am re-developing a course on library services for persons with different abilities at Syracuse University. In so doing it's important for me to facilitate the understanding of future librarians about disability history. This is because so many of our present ideas and attitudes about disability, unbeknown to many, come from our exposure to the medical model of disability, which played a central role in the eugenics era, alongside ugly laws, and large institutions that warehoused people with disabilities.


Most of those large institutions are closed now, or have been replaced by community-based options. Yet numerous other institutions continue or have expanded, and are where thousands of people with disabilities live. These include mental health treatment centers, adult and youth correctional facilities, veterans' and nursing homes, schools for the blind or deaf, and others. Correctional facilities are relevant to this discussion as society is coming to recognize the high disproportionate rate of disability among these populations. For instance, more than half of all incarcerated individuals have mental health impairments.


From personal experience I can speak about the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI), where I worked in the late 1980s in Austin, Texas. It was a largely residential school for children from all over the state, and resembled other K-12 schools in many respects including having a school library. That library had lots of large print, Braille, and audio books. We also had ready access to the Texas Talking Book Program, which in those days primarily converted books to an audio format and loaned audio books out on cassette tapes via mail to Texans of all ages.


In the late 1980s, TSBVI and other state residential facilities across the country, which primarily served persons with disability, began emptying their dormitories under growing pressure, in part, to keep children in their home schools and communities. At TSBVI, children who typically would return to their family homes at the end of semester, began traveling home most every weekend. Today, only 153 students attend TSBVI, while 10,627 other students who are blind or visually impaired in Texas live and go to school in their home communities.


But what about other institutional spaces, whose residents do not get to go home at the end of the week or semester? What are their libraries like? What programs and services do they offer? Who staffs them? And what do their collections include?


Looking into these questions, I began a web scan for information about the libraries in these institutional spaces – more specifically focusing on adult and youth correctional facilities and mental health treatment centers. I found this task much more easily said, however, than done.


For instance, we take it for granted that we can find our local school, college and public libraries online. We can call and talk to a librarian, often email or text them; search their databases; peruse the website about story times, guest authors and speakers, literacy initiatives, community events, volunteer opportunities, and many more things. Like other K-12 schools in 2018, I can locate the TSBVI library online, search its catalog, email the librarian a question, and check its hours of operation. Yet, other institutional libraries, with few exceptions don't have websites; and they just may not have a library, or a librarian.


As a starting example, the State of Colorado's Department of Education overseas all state libraries, including those in adult correctional facilities (though subject to additional oversight from the Department of Corrections), and those in mental health centers, state veteran homes, youth correctional centers, and the School for the Deaf and the Blind. Colorado created the Institutional Library Development unit with the mission "to provide the leadership and expertise that Colorado's state institutional libraries need to meaningfully impact the lives of users, their families and their communities." Their patrons include 18,000 Colorado residents living in or served by these institutions.


The Colorado State School for the Deaf and the Blind, as might be expected, provides public web access to its media centers, a digital library, and an online catalog. However, I could not find any online information about the other 37 institutional libraries, besides their physical addresses.


Now, I suppose there may be some logical reasons for these institutions to not have a library website. Members of the general public typically are not going to check out a book, spend a little quiet reading time, or listen to an audio book in a correctional facility library, or visit the mental health treatment center library to browse the stacks, do some research, or get their homework done. But members of the general public do have family and friends who are incarcerated in these spaces, and might like to know what the library has going on to help their loved ones. Just as I get email updates and check on the activities at my local libraries that I might share with family members, why would I not want to do that for my relative in an institution, or find out how I might assist, support, or volunteer in some capacity with the library?


Yet, Colorado may well be far ahead of other states to have identified a state level unit responsible for its institutional libraries, as well as the fact that it has libraries in all of these institutions. As previously mentioned, I'm not surprised to find a library in the state schools for K-12 students who are deaf or blind, nor particularly in the adult correctional institutions – where it is widely recognized that prison inmates have a right to access a library.


But among the others, as I conducted a web scan of the institutions in New York State, very few libraries were identified in the mental health treatment facilities and youth correctional centers. For instance, in my local community, colleagues of mine confirmed that the Hutchings Psychiatric Center has a small, understocked library in the member support services area and some computer terminals, though without a librarian; and the Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center has no library or librarian, but a local librarian does take a program into Hillbrook for approximately one hour per month. Additionally, the local county correctional facility converted its library into a laundry facility some years ago, though has not taken down two photos of a library space on its online facility tour.


So where am I going with this? Well, what could Project ENABLE offer? Should we add some training for non-librarians who might want to provide some services in an unstaffed library space? Might we provide resources for librarians or others without a library? Should members of the general public have access to institutional libraries, or opportunities to volunteer, if they'd like to offer services?

Pre- and In-Service Librarians Everywhere, Please send me your reactions, comments and suggestions at


William Myhill was co-Director of Project ENABLE from 2010-2017.

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