December 4th, 2012

"Through the Gratings": The Queens Borough Public Library Goes to Jail, 1915

Since this site has apparently become a chronicle of all the cool things the Queens Borough Public Library has done with library extension over the years (like the 1960s Teenmobile, say, or the post-Sandy mobile unit), I thought I’d share something I stumbled upon in my research.

Reading through The Library Without the Walls (1927), I found a report by Elizabeth Renninger, chief of the Queens Borough Public Library’s Traveling Library Department, on a project that in 1915 sent library staff and resources to a local jail. It’s a fascinating account, and I wanted to pull out a few excerpts for you.

Renninger explains how the project came to be, offering a vivid picture of the rather complicated politics of Progressive library projects (books uplift, apparently, but they also aid in discipline):

[I]n August I received a call from Phillip Klein, of the New York Prison Association, the object of which was to ascertain what the library could do for the prisoners in the Queens County Jail, Long Island City.

I suggested that one satisfactory way of solving the problem for the real help of the prisoners was to place in the jail a carefully selected collection of books (five hundred or more), the same to be administered by trained library assistants from this department. … In pursuance of this plan, a few days later Mr. Klein, Warden Robert Barr, the acting chief librarian, and myself met at the jail, where again the details of the scheme were outlined, the possibilities discussed.

We found the warden unusual; a man who inspired confidence. Rigid, yet sympathetic, he heartily endorsed our plan for supplying the prisoners with books, recognizing among other things that it would greatly help him in the discipline. Anxious for the books, ready—both himself and his staff—to meet our ideas of successful library administration at all points, as we toured the prison to settle practical details, we found him most helpful; moreover, he agreed to be personally responsible for the girls, assuring us that we need feel no more hesitancy about sending them to the jail than elsewhere.

Despite the warden’s assurances, the set up of the prison libraries suggest some worries remained, leading to different approaches for the men’s and women’s wards:

As a result of the conference, it was decided to recommend the placing of two separate collections in the jail, one in the women’s ward, in a room just off the sewing room, the other in the corridor, just outside “the Cage,” or men’s ward—the women to receive their books personally from the assistants; the men to be served through the gratings….

If you’ve been wondering what sorts of books would stock these two jail libraries, wonder no more. The answer will tell you a great deal about Progressive ideas about books, gender, class, race, domesticity, empire, history, and hygiene:

[T]he men’s collection contained: Books of adventure and travel (in the polar regions, the gold fields, the jungle, round the world); out-door books; books on animal life…; physical culture books, including hygiene and athletics; books covering practical farming, gardening, poultry raising; the self-supporting home; books of discovery and invention, including automobiles, airships, submarines; mechanical, electrical, and scientific books; patriotic and civic books, including poetry; books of heroism and chivalry; books on ethics (social, business, personal); easy books for foreigners, including primers and dictionaries; books covering practical sociology and the problems of the day; humorous books…; books suggesting social activities (magicians’ tricks, puzzles, conundrums, etc.); books on western life, including the Indian, the pioneer, the trapper, the cowboy; life in the army, navy, at West Point; books on Panama and the Canal; books covering Italian, Irish, German, and American life and character; lives of Boone, Columbus, Custer, Damien, Edison, Lincoln, Perry, Steiner, Washington, etc.; together with much attractive collective biography and history, etc., etc.

The women’s collection included: Books on sewing, dress-making, knitting, crocheting, lacemaking, and basketry; domestic economy, including cooking, serving, and waiting; books on gardening, poultry culture, the self-supporting home; books on child study and infant care; hygiene and beauty books; books on ethics; humorous books; books of romance, legend, and chivalry; books about animals; astronomy, popular science, and books on music; puzzles, charades, and other social activities, poetry; lives of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Empress Josephine, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, etc.; love stories of famous people; work in the world done by women; books about New York old and new; together with books of history, general literature, collective biography, and fiction.

Anyway, there’s a lot more, including accounts of opening day and of an unsettling encounter with what Renninger calls the “human zoo” of the men’s ward. I highly recommend giving the whole report a read. It’s strange and fascinating—not to mention terrible and wonderful in that paradoxical way the Progressives were so good at. 

PS: If you’re interested in these issues, be sure to check out Lassana Magassa's work. He was a fellow Google Policy Fellow this summer, and he's writing a dissertation about digital literacy, community informatics, and the incarcerated.

[The photo above is of a much better-appointed library at the federal prison at McNeil Island, Washington, in 1938.]

  1. asomlis reblogged this from bookmobility
  2. queenslibrary reblogged this from bookmobility and added:
    Thank you for this very wonderful post!
  3. kellylor reblogged this from bookmobility
  4. bookmobility posted this
This is a site about information in motion.

I'm Derek Attig, a director of communications at a non-profit and scholar of media history and American Studies. I am writing a book about bookmobiles in America.

I was a 2012 Google Policy Fellow. I'm also a contributor to Book Riot.

You can also follow me on Twitter @bookmobility or explore the menu tabs at the top of the site to find syllabi, links, and other information.

Comments? Questions? Ideas? Contact me at derekattig[at] or @bookmobility


']); _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']); (function() { var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true; ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + ''; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s); })();