URBAN OMNIBUS — September 7, 2018 — Where do you go to get help? A branch library system is an ideal physical infrastructure of aid: in New York City, 209 branches are dispersed throughout the city, yet central to neighborhoods’ identities; they convey government’s power, but have an overwhelmingly positive public profile. (They are, significantly, not police stations.) In the last 15 years, librarians and library systems throughout the country have embraced a commitment to equity of access — not only to the materials contained by the library’s physical building, but to civic participation and community inclusion more broadly. Increasingly, public libraries offer a place to work towards citizenship or a GED; register to vote or obtain identification; learn English or how to start businesses; experience or create art; and alleviate loneliness. Most importantly, public libraries are where people already go for help they can’t find elsewhere, or when they don’t know where to start. To a librarian, no question is off limits — even, from people returning home from prison: “How can I rebuild my life?”
Librarians at a 12 Brooklyn Public Library branches already field this question. Thanks to the TeleStory program, which reconnects people separated by incarceration via video visits, they’ve cultivated relationships with dozens of formerly incarcerated people and their families. Now, the library hopes to bring together the insights those relationships generate with an unparalleled network of community contact. BPL hopes library-based reentry programs could counteract the trauma of prison and its aftershocks: Nearly all of Brooklyn’s 2.6 million residents live within a half mile of a BPL branch, where recently incarcerated library patrons could connect to helpful service-providers as they search for housing, jobs, legal help, or medical care. But in the wake of trauma, contact needs a subtle touch, and poses a complex design problem. The architecture of the library can encourage help-seeking, or hinder it; the interaction between a librarian and a recently incarcerated person can build trust, or break it. So starting in Fall 2018, the Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Lab (DESIS Lab) will help BPL move through a service design process to hone in on moments of potential and missed opportunities. Ethnographers will gather the voices of library patrons and staff; journey maps and system blueprints will distill how people move through the spaces of the branches and the systems of services that characterize reentry. Before setting out on the process together, Interim Outreach Services Director Eva Raison and Televisit Services Coordinator Michael Carey spoke with Lara Penin and Eduardo Staszowski, co-founder and director of DESIS Lab, and design ethnographer John Bruce about how intersection becomes connection, and how information becomes power.
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