Ruha BenJamin vs. The New Jim Code

By Char Jeré

Ruha Benjamin’s talk on Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code was just as raw as the topic itself. It came with no filters, no disclaimers and no trigger warnings— it wasn’t for the precious, it was for the people whose lives depend on such brutal honesty. This moment with Benjamin felt like an astral projection, the experience catapulting me from a space where darkness was being vilified to a place where it is now finally embraced. During this talk, it seemed like Benjamin was shepherding us out of our own black boxes of internalized racism and into clarity. After her three provocations, I was called to take a left out of my body and a right into my imagination—the directions were simple but you still needed to know them, as a right out of my body could have led me back into someone else’s imagination, essentially up the creek without a paddle. Benjamin stated that, “Most people are forced to live inside of someone else’s imagination”, citing Adrienne Marie Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, as an inspiration. As Brown explains in her book, “I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free.”. Power does indeed lie in the ability to imagine but what happens when you have an old, tiresome imagination that turns innocent people into potential threats, “superpredators” and even worse, demons? These words have all been weaponized by top political figures, from Hillary Clinton to killer cops (like Darren Wilson) against African Americans for centuries. Officer Wilson described Michael Brown as a demon before he brutally shot and killed the 18-year-old on the streets in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Audre Lorde would call such things “imagination without insight” in her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury”.

A photograph from the exhibit on African-American progress, on view inside the Palace of Social Economy at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. (Library of Congress)

I started thinking more deeply about my daily interactions with intrusive, white-bred artifacts; Benjamin quoted Langdon Winner as saying “Artifacts have politics.”. The residues of white inferiority have been scattered strategically around us and are the default within the design and ultimately, within the system. White bias exists in so many facets of our daily lives that it often becomes disturbingly inconspicuous. Kara Walker states that with monuments and memorials, “…there’s this very peculiar quality that they have of being completely invisible— the larger they are, in fact, the more they sink into the background.” The effects of this phenomenon (white inferiority) were having fun double-dutching and hopscotching through my genes like school kids on summer break. Right there in my cold metal folding chair, I sat realizing that every new technology’s job was not only to reintroduce us to new trauma but to preserve the intergenerational trauma in my DNA. The matrix of oppression could be explicit but it could also be obscure; it could be abrasive while also being agreeable, moonlighting as a “serve and protector”. It was as disruptive as light is to darkness but useless against reason and true innovation. Ruha Benjamin pushes us to examine our interiority, so we no longer need to put up with the mediocrity of settler colonialism. She wants us to liberate ourselves so we can start truly innovating change. We are now impenetrable and have received our reparative vaccinations against white redundancy that have been killing and stagnating us for centuries. It is time to finally welcome modernity. In Safia Elhillo’s book The January Children, she references a quote by Adonis, “How many centuries deep is your wound.”. This was not a question–it was a critical examination of race, ethnicity, class and gender through rhetoric. My question is: when they colonize Mars, will racism still be en vogue?

I am the God of war! ARrrrrghhhh!!!!!

“THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Alisha Wormsley’s billboard exclaims, hovering over an area in Pittsburgh that has seen rapid changes from “re-development” projects and gentrification. We are in the future just by existing in this present moment but for me it is not just about being there, it’s about where we are there. During the talk-back, people who were living in public housing explained that their landlord installed facial recognition software without their consent. They also expressed concern about their right to privacy. New technology has never been empathetic to the needs of marginalized people, which means that designers do not envision us in the future. Firearms, steam engines, the Cotton Gin and the internet are all examples of how technological advances keep oppression well-fed. As Benjamin shifted her talk from the well-documented problems of white technological setbacks to solutions on how to mobilize against these “New Jim Codes”, she states this: “Like abolitionist practices of a previous era, not all manners of resistance and getting free should be exposed…calls for abolition are never simply about bringing harmful systems to an end but also about envisioning new ones…”.

(Image courtesy of Jon Rubin)

People who have been marginalized and made the most vulnerable are constantly working and fighting to adjust their user settings, in turn causing them to consistently relive their own trauma. Benjamin declared, “The nightmares that many people are forced to endure are the underside of elite fantasies about efficiency, profit, and social control.”. Her declarations are the tuning forks of knowledge–they are our first post-apocalyptic radio broadcast that blares the coordinates of liberation. Benjamin shows us that there are more of us out there, imagining and creating outside of the logics we had internalized; we are building our own micro-revolutions. She reassures us that nothing is permanent, especially not oppression. In thinking about what some historians call “slave-breeding”, or coerced sexual-reproduction (eugenics) during slavery in the Americas, instead of UXD, I started repeating “HXD, HXD…HXD,” for Human Experiment Design, or more specifically, the process of manipulating human behavior and genetics through brutality, mortality, and corporeality. People have been and still are being domesticated like animals and plants, which has real-world implications. The whip, the gun, the white man and capitalism are all clinging tightly to our cells like a gene mutation.

There was a sense of urgency in Benjamin’s voice that activated the ancestor memory card deeply embedded within my DNA, sending RNA and Cas9 by way of gene-drive technology to isolate trauma, cut it out and be rid of it once and for all. The idea of eliminating white inferiority from our genetic coding is liberating but to think that we possess the power to free our ancestors who came before (and will surely come after) has started to consume me. She pointed to Pierre Bourdieu as saying that, “the way you know you have a powerful system is that you no longer need the conductor, people just orchestrate themselves. You internalize it and [that’s how] we keep it going.”. She goes on to say that colorism is not perpetuated in the black community or other communities of color by a white man standing there and saying “you are better, you are worse, you are more valued…it’s through the internalization of the logic that we continue to reproduce amongst ourselves.”. Suffering is a trillion-dollar, sadistic business that finds joy and comfort in exploiting pain—capitalism relies heavily on its reproduction through the germ cell lineage. We have no choice but to disrupt this industry by denying it access to the next generation.  

The night of the talk, Benjamin felt like Morpheus from the Matrix but she didn’t give us the option to be complacent anymore; there was only one pill. The doors of the Housing Works were the threshold of the linear perception of time; walking through them meant there was no going back. We were all accountable because we were now all armed with the knowledge and inspiration to bring about our own insurrections. There was an energy in the room that I hadn’t felt since my radical Black feminist seminar in undergrad, which was both optimistic and restorative. When Harriet Tubman walked by a plantation singing “Steal Away” and “Sweet Chariot”, that was her way of communicating that it was time to move and time to break free. Likewise, when Ruha Benjamin took the stage, her provocations were like the songs of the Underground Railroad, her last being the most profound: “The imagination is a contested field of action, not an ephemeral afterthought that we have a luxury to dismiss or romanticize but a resource, a battleground, an input and output of tech and social order.”.


Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press

A Review of Pratt SI’s Alumni Panel

On October 14, I attended an Alumni Panel hosted by Pratt’s School of Information. The panel consisted of three recent graduates from the School, each in different roles in the information community. They were:
Carlos Acevedo, the Digital Asset Manager at The Jewish Museum
Kate Meizner, a UX Designer & Data Analyst at Google
Anna Murphy, an Upper School Librarian at the Berkeley Carroll School, an independent school in Park Slope.

ASIS&T @ Pratt, the Association for Information Science and Technology, put on the panel in conjunction with Professor Irene Lopatovska’s INFO 601 classes. It was mostly students from her class who filled the room, but there were several other School of Information students in attendance as well. In general, the panel had a very casual feel as it was a small audience in the same room our class is held. The panelists went down the line answering questions about their time as graduate students and their transition into their respective fields. This panel was set up as a way for current students to see how our predecessors have managed to gain careers after graduation and give advice to current students who may be worried or not sure where to go after their impending graduations.

Mr. Acevedo, who has done Digital Asset Management for the Jewish Museum for three and a half years now, began by saying that the first two years of his position were taken up by introducing a DAM system and the last year has been spent managing that system. His team is small and he is the only one managing the DAM on the team. Mostly, that makes Mr. Acecedo’s work independent but he does have a lot of cross-departmental meetings and works closely with the Director of Digital, JiaJia Fei. Ironically, he noted, his project management style is very analog for a position that is so technology-based. To organize himself, he uses a large whiteboard that he splits into different sections corresponding to different tasks he is doing on long and short term bases. Because he meets with so many people from different departments, he makes sure to use formal Google calendar invites to set up meeting times, but uses Slack for more informal communication. When asked what the most challenging part of this job is, Mr. Acevedo noted that there are many projects around the museum he knows he can tackle based on his knowledge of best practices, but often these are out of his control due to departmental lines, budgets, and the will of the Board of Directors. The most rewarding part is when he can solve problems around him that have seemingly impossible solutions.

For Kate Meizner, her position as a UX researcher is very different. She is constantly collaborating with the twelve others on her team, which changes every year and a half. She describes her job as a bit of chaos; her duties range from running two research studies at a time to interviewing customers to surveys, analyzing data, and coordinating team strategy. In the mornings before everyone goes about their tasks, her team does a morning stand-up so everyone can let their coworkers know what they are working on that day, what needs to be accomplished, and who needs to meet to get that done. It can be a challenging workflow, as often non-UX people are invited to make UX decisions. Ms. Meizner also noted the lack of a central project management tool. She utilizes Google Sheets frequently, as well as GoToMeeting which is a remote desktop program, Qualtrics surveys, Tableau, Python, and R. Some current projects are deciding what her team strategy will be for the next two and a half years and analyzing data visualization studies, which last from three weeks to a month. For her, the most challenging parts of her job are new teams which makes finding your place in an organization that is constantly changing difficult, as well as figuring out how to get things done. Yet the most rewarding parts are understanding how research propagates in products, hearing how her work helps others improve their own workdays, and especially when she gets to apply knowledge learned at Pratt.

Anna Murphy’s job is on the Library Science side of the School of Information. As a high school librarian, she has no typical day. Her work ranges from teaching short workshops to students, researching projects for teachers, and conducting an eighth-grade technology class. She is constantly working with children, being centrally located in the library. There is almost no one in the school Ms. Murphy does not work with, so communication is especially important. Many times proposals for projects or workshops are very casual, maybe even just a mention in the elevator, so Google Sheets and Trillo, a task management system, are essential to staying on top of every interaction. For her, the most challenging part of her job is having to advocate for the students first. As an independent school, there is a lot of bureaucracy. She feels she must often work backward from what reading is. However, the most rewarding part is when the students engage with the books she buys for them and feel comfortable in the space of the library.

One of our readings that I was reminded of during this event was John Gehner’s article “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.“ Especially when Ms. Murphy was talking about how her students come from extremely diverse backgrounds, I felt she was exemplifying what the article says is part of the duty of librarians. Many children who have troubled home lives can find refuge in their school libraries. “Action 3: Remove Barriers that Alienate Socially Excluded Groups” is practiced by Ms. Murphy when she talked about making a comfortable space for her students. She makes sure to not judge them on whatever topic they are interested in, as well as buying books that will pique their interest. She practices “Action 4: Get Out of the Library and Get to Know People” by teaching the technology class, doing classroom visits, and coaching a sports team to nurture a relationship with students outside of the library bounds.

I saw elements of the “Design Justice” article in what Ms. Meizner spoke about. She noted that many times non-UX designers will be on her projects and they fail to see potential problems that she would as someone who takes everyone into consideration, rather than just the mainstream population. She talked about making sure to pay attention to how her work is influencing others, similar to design justice’s mantra of “how the design of objects and systems influences the distribution of risks, harms, and benefits among various groups of people.”

Overall, I found this panel to be extremely helpful in my path through graduate school. It is always reassuring to hear the stories of others who have come before. By hearing how these three graduates earned their degrees, how they obtained their jobs, and how they use their knowledge gained at Pratt Institute in their work every day.


Costanza-Chock, Sasha. “Design Justice: towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice.” DRS2018: Catalyst, June 28, 2018.

Gehner, John. “Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion.” Public Library Quarterly29, no. 1 (March 15, 2010): 39–47.

Review on Big Data Debate: Big data destroys what means to be human

I watched a Big Data Debate held by the Cambridge Union posted on November 16, 2018, through its Youtube channel. The topic was “big data destroys what means to be human”. This 3V3 debate was very informative and offered me an excellent opportunity to hear the voices from people in different academic or industrial fields about how they think about the pros and cons of the big data and effects on the humanities.

On the proposition side, Jeremy Pitt, the professor of intelligent and self-organizing systems at Imperial College, gave a constructive speech, pointing out that big data facilitated lots of design choices to destroy things what meant to be human. Collecting and analyzing real-time data from people, the big companies would asymmetrically control the means of social coordination, peer production, and digital innovation with little public accountability and transparency. Therefore, it would lead to a global monopoly of just a few players and a few platforms dominating each aspect of social and commercial life. He asserted that in this way, big data destroyed humanities both collectively and individually. Surveillance capitalism emerged and reduced the opportunities for successful collective actions. For individuals, big data diminished human’s ability to create narratives, generate ideas and have unmodified emotions through the algorithms.

Pitt’s speech had many solid points on the current situation, the trend of using big data, and many threats under the emergence of big data. As the first speaker, he lay the foundation for the whole debate on this big data topic. His speech also reminded me of Keller and Neufeld’s book, “Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data”, which narrated a world profoundly influenced by the big data. If people shared their data and lived permanently on the grid, they would lose the right to tell their own story. It is terrifying to me, because when everyone in the world agrees to live in a world that uses data to define people, I will have no choice to be a human I want to be.

However, Harry Ellison-Wright, the third-year student from Claire College, disagreed that big data would drive us to that world. He declared that big data would not destroy what meant to be human, but showed people what it meant to be human. Moreover, there were lots of beneficial example of using big data, such as cavendish laboratory, invented vaccinations to save thousands of lives. Even though someone used big data to quantify human’s greed, lust, envy, prejudice, addictions, and darkest secrets, big data actually demonstrated people’s shortcomings and deepened people’s understanding of themselves.

Then, Angus Groom from the proposition side who had a background in economics at Trinity College pointed out that something human owned for a very long time but now under the threats of big data, such as relying on our brains. Then he reemphasized that using computers instead of brains would finally treat privacy, power, and politics. To against Angus, Vesselin Popov, who studied human online behavior and psychological assessment in Cambridge, declared that we need to use big data and also employ precautionary principles. The problems the proposition side accused onto the big data actually were caused by the lack of education, the ability to scrutinize the monopolies, and the regulations on the big institutions to exploit people’s vulnerability. Vesselin claimed that big data did not take away our opportunities to make collective actions. Moreover, e-voting platforms even brought political power to people at a lower level or grassroots level, not only the elites.

After the floor speech provided various examples against each other, Joy Jia, a law student at Queen’s College, and Ken Cukier, a technology editor, had a final round. Joy strongly asserted big data could not be separated from its uses, and big data was valuable did not mean it was harmless. When big data offered people convenience, it also destroyed many vital parts in humanity, especially the emotion. Taking out the emotion out of the decision-making process, the existence of big data impeded human to self-determine, which harmed humanity fundamentally. In contrast, Ken stood for big data was, in fact, a product of our humanity and facilitated us to see further, learn the patterns of the world, and save the world. Also, he disagreed that big data made the power concentrated, because we lived in a world that everything was becoming concentrated. 

This debate ended, but the discussion on big data still exists. When we think about the opportunities and challenges from big data historically and broadly, we can find big data is just another turning point in human evolution that our lives have changed dramatically. I agree that “humanity” will develop with social movements. How people behave and think is primarily depended on our resources and limitations. We cannot deny that we are so limited that we need technology to help us live in this world, and big data is one of the most powerful ones that human created to empower ourselves and improve our society. Also, I admit that any superpower can induce the dark sides of human nature, but people should never give up the chance to make the world better because of the potential risks. What we should do is not blaming how big data destroy what means to be human, but finding solutions to protect our humanity. 

One floor speaker raised the example of the gun debate, whether it’s the guns that kill people or people kill people. I think this example can lead us to a solution that we should set regulations and make laws on big data issues, just as what we did for the gun. Specifically, to relieve people’s most worrying about the privacy, biased data, and asymmetric control of big companies, one possible solution could be increasing the data transparency that people can decide whether they want their data to be used and learn how their data are used. In my perspective, the most fundamental humanity that can not be destroyed is the freedom to know and choose. In this case, big data technology needs to be encouraged to make more contributions.


  1. Big Data Debate, Cambridge Union. Nov, 2018.
  2. Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld, Terms of service: understanding our role in the world of big data. Oct. 30, 2014.

Algorithmic Awareness as Activism

As part of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Digital Scholarship Section (DSS) Open Data Week 2019, I participated in an open research discussion group: “Open Data Activism in Search of Algorithmic Transparency: Algorithmic Awareness in Practice,” led by Montana State University (MSU) researchers: professor Jason Clark and research assistant Julian Kaptanian.

At the time of the discussion, Clark and Kaptanian were in the process of concluding an IMLS-grant-funded research project entitled “Unpacking the Algorithms That Shape User Experience.” The ACLR DSS presentation built off modules and workshops that Clark and Kaptanian had run in the past year as part of the IMLS research project, exploring how building user competencies and empowering technology users on a personal level is a form of activism. You can learn more about the grant project here.

A ‘Symptom’ of Technology

Clark and Kaptanian grounded the discussion by characterizing algorithms as a ‘symptom’ of routine technology use. Like a cough to a cold, algorithms can be the less than desirable phenomena that shadows the data generated from our daily computer-mediated transactions. However seemingly inexplicable, algorithms have real consequences.

To illustrate this point, Clark recounted how online platforms amplified the incorrect online identification of the Las Vegas shooter in 2017 by pushing 4chan reddit users conspiracy theories in the online search results following the mass shooting. Within hours, an innocent man faced online harassment and blacklisting, an ordeal to which Google and Facebook simply responded ‘the algorithm did it,’ begging the question: what’s behind an algorithm? (Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Wakabayshi, Daisuke (@daiwaka). October 2, 2017, 10:32 AM, Tweet.

Clark defines algorithms as the “computational processes embedded into our software” that in turn “predict, recommend, and speculate about our interests” in our all digital interactions. This is to considerable effect and risk as Gillespie warns in “The Relevance of Algorithms,” “as we have embraced computational tools as our primary media of expression, and have made not just mathematics but all information digital, we are subjecting human discourse and knowledge to these procedural logics that undergird all computation.” (Gillespie, 2014, p. 168) Clark then asks what if the “ghost in the machine” was understood by technology users and an “interrogation of algorithms” was a fundamental element of the digital environment? (p. 169)

Open Data and Algorithmic Awareness

Clark grounds this call to action in the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) “right to explanation” or “meaningful information about the logic involved” in an algorithmic decision. Clark posits GDPR is an international opportunity to demand algorithmic transparency and therefore positions digital literacy as a form of activism.

Clark and Kaptanian led a series of “algorithmic awareness” exercises that they piloted with MSU undergraduate students. First, they broke down the core functions of an algorithm including searching, filtering, ranking, and parsing information through illustrating the “weighted graph” of how Facebook ranks your connections online which in turn shapes your Facebook feed, a theoretical concept which is readily understandable to a user of social media.  

In the next exercise, Clark and Kaptanian aim to demystify the technical aspects of the algorithm by utilizing ‘pseudocode’ through which participants are asked ‘program the library’ or code different goals with the possible actions within a library to reach those goals. For example, the goal of ‘research’ could be achieved by the possible actions: ‘reference desk’ and ‘computer lab.’ They also introduced ‘methods’ as an added layer for achieving the task, like ‘emailing a librarian,’ as a tangible approach to the if, and, or logic underlying all code (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Clark, Jason, 2019, Github algorithmic awareness pseudocode template.

Despite the moderator’s best efforts to explain the technical structure of code through the tangible and familiar spaces of the university library, the exercise in practice proved difficult for the participants, requiring double the time to complete than the suggest 5-7 minutes. However, it was the follow-up questions to the exercise that proved the most valuable in understanding the limitations or code. Kapitanian asked the group who we envisioned as our audience in generating our code and we all answered differently. Some participants envisioned students, other’s faculty, staff or even an outside visitor. Collectively we came to discuss, however bound by brackets and formulaic syntax, our ‘code’ was still limited by our embodied experience enacted within social structures. Therefore, despite their neutral appearance, algorithms and the information they retrieve are subjective (Bates, 2006, p. 11-12).

The presentation concluded with a brief discussion of data profiling, and the steps users can take to understand what personal data is stored in platforms like Facebook and Google by walking participants through how to view and download their digital profiles. For many in the discussion, this exercise was nothing new and limited because their Ad Personalization feature in Google was already turned off.

‘Pedagogy for an Algorithm’

Moreover, the discussion “Open Data Activism in Search of Algorithmic Transparency: Algorithmic Awareness in Practice,” both highlighted the urgent need to build algorithms awareness into digital literacy efforts and while offering tools for educators and students to build that competences and ultimately framing that as activism.

The survey circulated at the close of the event, further emphasized these points. The survey solicited the level of resources and education around algorithm awareness at my current institution as well as asked at what grade level I thought it appropriate to introduce digital literacy.

My response: elementary school, or as soon as students begin to start to seriously engage with the internet.

At a moment when society is attempting to take a step back to fully understand the ‘ghost in the machine,’ it is important to see the opportunity in building digital literacy as a safeguard against current risks and advocate for change or open data in the future.

Works Cited

Bates, M. J. (2006). “Fundamental forms of information.” Journal of the American Society for Information and Technology 57(8): 1033–1045.

Gillespie T. (2014), “The relevance of algorithms” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, eds. T. Gillespie, P. Boczkowski, and K. Foot. Cambridge: MIT Press, 167–194.

Figures Cited

Figure 1.

Wakabayshi, Daisuke (@daiwaka). “Google statement on how 4chan thread identifying the wrong man as the shooter showed up “in the news.” October 2, 2017, 10:32 AM, Tweet.

Figure 2.

Clark, Jason, 2019, Github algorithmic awareness pseudocode template.

Evaluating Impact in the “Forgotten Field” of Prison Librarianship[1]

Jay Rosen 

601 Research Paper

“There have been plenty of articles — too many, it seems sometimes — that describe prison libraries, say they are useful as rehabilitative tools, and stop there.” (Barone, 1977)

For decades, a number of prison librarians and researchers have decried the near-total lack of data in their field regarding the impact of prison libraries on incarcerated individuals. In spite of their critiques, the majority of prison library literature remains descriptive in nature and relies more on speculation than empirically valid claims when describing impact. This paper attempts to identify the main reasons why it is so difficult to adequately evaluate the impact of prison library services. Chief among these include the diminishment of prison library services in America following the Supreme Court’s 1995 Lewis v. Casey decision; professional divides and isolation within the field of prison librarianship; the uniquely complex challenges faced by inmates; difficulties inherent in evaluating impact; profound variations in the missions, resources, and institutional contexts of prison libraries; lack of attention towards impact evaluation in foundational prison library guideline documents; and generally inadequate and understaffed prison library facilities.  

Following an exploration of these issues, suggestions for strengthening impact evaluation in prison libraries are proposed, including enhanced advocacy efforts towards politicians, funders, and the public; increased partnerships with public libraries; an explicit adoption of the “public library model” by prison libraries; inclusion of library professionals in relevant policy discussions; improved communication between prison librarians and correctional staff; increased collaboration between re-entry efforts, prison education programs, and prison libraries; strengthening of administrative procedures; general clarification of prison library services; extension of relevant public library initiatives to prison libraries (for instance, the Public Library Association’s Project Outcome initiative); and the development of a more robust theoretical context on which to ground subsequent research.

In discussing the challenges prison libraries face, this paper will focus primarily on American state and federal adult correctional institutions with “full service” libraries. This paper will not consider prison law libraries, although many claims made concerning impact evaluation are likely applicable to those environments as well. Perspectives from Denmark, Norway, and elsewhere across the world are also included.

The Value of Evaluation

Given that most prison libraries are underfunded and understaffed, one can hardly fault prison librarians — often the only permanent, full-time, formally-trained staff member in their library — for prioritizing direct service over data collection. In light of this reality, it is at times tempting to ask why impact evaluation matters in the first place, particularly when resources are so scarce and prison librarians’ time so limited. However, impact evaluation shows great promise in regards to ameliorating these very issues. To name a few benefits, improved impact evaluation can help strengthen decision-making, resource allocation, delivery of services, and funding for prison libraries (Lithgow & Hepworth, 1993). While this paper will not attempt to exhaustively defend the importance of impact research, this section will serve to introduce some of its most significant benefits in this context. 

Connections have frequently been made between data collection and improved advocacy efforts. Vogel writes, “The odds of maintaining or even expanding the library can be increased by a librarian who represents the library program as a major contributor to the development of the reading and information skills of the entire incarcerated community” (Vogel, 2009). Data reflecting the connection between prison libraries and the development of desirable qualities and behaviors can go a long way in securing potential funding and portraying prison libraries as valuable institutions deserving of attention and support. Compelling reports can be “invaluable” in convincing prison administrators to approve requests for increased budgets and materials as well (ALA, 1992).   

In a similar manner, improved data collection helps to ground prison libraries in ongoing discussions and research on re-entry, inmate education, and prison reform more generally. As will be highlighted later, prison librarians likely have a great deal to contribute to these conversations, yet are almost entirely absent from them today.  

It is estimated that roughly half the world’s prison population — over 5 and a half million people — use prison libraries in some capacity (UNESCO, 2019). Better evaluating the impact of prison library services will not only provide information on how prison libraries are used today, but also offer opportunities for librarians and researchers to critically assess and refine services going forward. 

Most significant, though, is the largely unrealized role prison libraries might play in facilitating successful re-entry and reducing recidivism. The vast majority of inmates in America are ultimately released from prison back into society — some estimates put this figure as high as 95%.[2] This is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future, as many people incarcerated during the so-called “War on Drugs” continue to be released, and as a growing number of prisons release inmates early in response to budget shortfalls (Stearns, 2004). Though most inmates in America will eventually be released, 43% of them will return to prison at least once (Pew Research Center, 2011)[3]. Better understanding the impact of prison libraries will enable librarians to strengthen their services in order to encourage positive outcomes and lower recidivism rates for this population. 

Moreover, improving prison library services will likely improve literacy and education rates for individuals re-entering society, thereby helping to reduce costs associated with higher crime, incarceration, and re-incarceration. These financial benefits would be matched only by the improvements in public safety that result from decreased crime. 

In short, improved impact evaluation will strengthen prison library services, thereby increasing their positive potential and providing compelling evidence for their continuation and expansion. 

The Mission and Purpose of Prison Libraries Today

Before delving into the particular challenges faced by prison libraries in regards to impact measurement, it is useful to first clarify their primary aims. Prison libraries first emerged in Europe and the United States throughout the 17th century as a means of providing “moral and religious education” to inmates (Garner, 2017). The first prison “librarians” were actually clergymen who dispensed religious books to prisoners in the hopes of encouraging their “spiritual and moral reading and training” (UNESCO, 2019). Under this arrangement, prison library collections consisted entirely of approved religious texts, with books that served primarily to entertain (novels for example) strictly forbidden. 

This model of prison libraries persisted through the early 20th century, until the idea of reading for “educational purposes and for emotional, personal and intellectual development” (UNESCO, 2019) began to gain traction. In fact, not until 1970 were prison libraries formally recognized in the United States as institutions promoting “wholesome recreation, direct and indirect education, and mental health” (Lehmann 2011). Today, prison libraries have largely adopted the public library philosophy of promoting information access as an unconditional human right, and have developed policies and collections intended to meet the diverse information needs of their patrons. Their mission has expanded tremendously beyond offering spiritually edifying materials to include providing contact to outside communities, supporting rehabilitative programs, offering information on vocational skills, providing informal educational programming, encouraging self-directed recreational reading, providing access to legal information and the courts, and attempting to generally prepare inmates for re-entry (ASGCLA 1992). 

Though the missions and resources of individual prison libraries vary depending on the needs of their patrons and the restrictions and allowances of the correctional facility they are embedded in, most can easily be placed into six of eight roles of public libraries as identified by the Public Library Association (PLA): these include Community Activity Center, Community Information Center, Formal Education Support Center, Independent Learning Center, Popular Materials Library, and Reference Library.  

A number of national and international documents guide and govern the development and implementation of prison library services around the world. Commonly cited guidelines include the American Library Association’s (ALA) Library Bill of Rights, Freedom to Read Statement, Freedom to View Statement, and Policy on Confidentiality of Library Records; the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies’ (ASGCLA) Resolution on Prisoners’ Right to Read and Library Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions; the Council of Europe’s European Prison Rules; the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; and the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions’ (IFLA) Charter for the Reader.

As the missions of prison libraries have expanded, so too have their intended outcomes. Common intended impacts of prison libraries include improved literacy skills, information literacy, and the development of “critical reasoning skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, empowerment, and changed perspectives” (Warr, 2016), as well as the strengthening of hope, motivation, social bonds, and mental health for inmates (Finlay & Bates 2018). 

A chief motivation for the expansion of purpose and intended impact in prison libraries is the apparent success of correctional education programs in reducing recidivism rates and promoting successful reentry (Wilhelmus, 1999). But despite a clearer articulation of their purpose and intended outcomes than perhaps ever before, most prison libraries around the world remain plagued by a lack of empirical data testifying to the actual impact of their services. The next section will review the many reasons this is so.  

Challenges in Evaluating Impact in Prison Libraries

Librarians and researchers have lamented the scarcity of empirical evidence on the impact of library services on incarcerated users for at least sixty years now. David M. Gillespie’s 1968 analysis of prison library literature describes a prevailing overreliance on description over evaluation of prison library services (Gillespie, 1968), and the American Friends Service Committee similarly declared in 1971 that prison library literature lacks “credible scientific data on the effectiveness of correctional treatment program” (Barone 1977), with most programs determining their effectiveness not through rigorous research but rather “speculation.” These early concerns appear to have been largely ignored, and most in the field have not yet heeded calls to provide empirical data to buttress claims of positive impact. The situation has so little improved that one can scarcely tell whether particular pleas for increased research and data collection were published fifty years ago or in 2018. 

Why has this remained such a pervasive and largely unaddressed issue? What barriers prevent librarians and researchers from evaluating the impact of prison library services on inmates? This section identifies a number of distinct but overlapping problem areas. 

Difficulties in Evaluating Impact 

Notwithstanding the particular challenges faced by prison libraries, it is notoriously difficult to compellingly demonstrate causal relationships between particular factors and particular outcomes. Because there are so many forces at play in any individual’s life in a given moment, it is incredibly difficult to isolate any one aspect and argue for its particular impact. This fact helps explain why so many accounts of prison library impact rely on anecdotal evidence and largely unsubstantiated claims. Though it is tempting to make connections between library use and improved outcomes for inmates based on sentiment and observation alone, “the reason for an inmate’s success or failure is probably more complicated, [and is] produced by many factors, including criminogenic needs, risk principles, and the complicated interaction between an inmate and their institutional environment” (Stearns, 2004). Were prison librarians and researchers to dramatically improve impact evaluation tomorrow, it would remain exceedingly difficult to make conclusive, causal claims about the impact of particular library resources on particular inmate outcomes. As the esteemed social scientist Raj Chetty puts it, “there are so many things data may be trying to say” (Cook, 2019). 

Both quantitative and qualitative data present particular challenges in regards to impact evaluation. Though quantitative data is typically more tangible and easily collected than qualitative information, it is frequently misleading and limited. Ratios of library materials to inmates were often cited as a measure of success for prison libraries, despite the fact that prison library collections were mostly “outdated, little used, and sometimes inaccessible” (LeDonne, 1977). Other “hard data” including circulation statistics, number of patron interactions, and library program attendance, for example, likewise say very little about the quality of a patron’s experience, and can inadvertently foster inaccurate narratives.  

A greater consensus exists these days regarding the importance of gathering qualitative data to demonstrate impact. However, qualitative data presents its own set of challenges. For one, it is generally difficult to assess phenomena related to behaviors, attitudes, and other aspects of “human experience and development” (Finlay & Bates, 2018). Though many advocate for prison libraries on behalf of their ability to provide solace and “generate a feeling of normalcy” (UNESCO, 2019) for their users, it is hard to capture these invisible characteristics through data collection. This is true of many of the other behaviors prison libraries seek to encourage, including improved self narratives, identity development, and increased confidence pursuing self-directed learning opportunities (Warr, 2016). Is it possible, though, to provide objective evidence of subjective changes? 

Impact evaluation research also suffers from conceptual, methodological, and management issues. Conceptual issues relate “to the definition of library effectiveness, to who judges effectiveness, and to the definition of information needs and uses” (Vanhouse, 1989). Methodological issues instead relate “to the data collection methods, sampling, and statistics” used, while managerial issues “address the appropriate use and interpretation of measurement data” (Vanhouse, 1989). These issues spur complex and ambiguous questions which lack a “single, operational definition” (Vanhouse, 1989).  

Other issues related to impact measurement in prison libraries include the fluidity of user needs, attempts by inmates to conform to the measures of particular studies, and the fact that most inmates are not followed up with by researchers after their release (Barone, 1977). 

Taken collectively, these factors encourage caution when gathering and assessing data in prison libraries: 

“While we may be able to construct abstract models of the relationship between library actions and output measures, in practice the complexity of the library and its environment interferes with attempts to understand and manipulate output measures…They should be used with caution and an understanding of their limitations” (Vanhouse, 1989). 

Recent research similarly testifies to the challenges of identifying “an appropriate means of measuring outcomes and evaluating change” (Behan, 2014) in as unique and complex an environment as prison. This is not to suggest that such attempts cannot and should not be made. Rather, one should be mindful of the specific limitations, challenges, and pitfalls inherent to evaluating impact. 

Lack of Research and Attention 

With few exceptions, documents offering policies and guidelines for prison libraries devote marginal attention to assessing and evaluating prison library services. IFLA’s Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners provides one sentence on measuring impact following their 94 distinct recommendations, only suggesting that libraries should conduct performance evaluations every “3-5 years.” UNESCO’s Books Behind Bars report likewise contains only a few words on impact evaluation. The same is true of prison library literature more broadly. Clark and MacCreaigh’s Library Services to the Incarcerated offers only a two page appendix on “performance measures,” and many other works refer to data collection and performance measurement in passing or as a brief aside.  

That these otherwise comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-researched works offer only a few pages (or words) on impact evaluation is extremely telling of the lack of attention devoted to this issue. Impact evaluation is deserving of more than lip service, and organizations and individuals already invested in relevant research, advocacy efforts, and policy discussions have a role to play in more clearly articulating and developing guidelines on impact evaluation. 

A Highly Decentralized Field 

There exists a great deal of variation in regards to how individual prison libraries are established and embedded in particular correctional facilities. Some prison libraries belong to their institution’s education department, others exist within rehabilitation-centered departments, and still others exist independent of any formally defined correctional department. In addition, the degree of cooperation between prison libraries and nearby public library systems varies tremendously, with some libraries collaborating extensively with one another and others have no connection whatsoever. Every prison library, then, is unique in both its operation and relationship to relevant institutions. 

Unsurprisingly, prison libraries differ remarkably in regards to their missions as well. As a result, it is not uncommon for confusion and disagreement to arise regarding the purpose and structure of a prison library: Does the library exist primarily for recreation? To grant access to legal materials? To rehabilitate or “reform” inmates? To serve as a public library surrogate? 

Of course, variation amongst prison libraries is a natural reflection of their unique user groups, resources, and restrictions. However, this decentralization complicates efforts to create useful and widely applicable guidelines for impact evaluation in prison libraries. 

Diminishment of Prison libraries 

The precarious and diminished status of prison libraries in America is also central to understanding the general lack of research and data in this field.  

The Supreme Court’s 1995 Lewis v. Casey decision dealt a powerful blow to prison libraries across the United States. The decision affirmed prisoners’ constitutional right to access the courts, but further declared that this right is not violated when prisoners lack “legal research facilities or legal assistance” — so long as prisoners are not “substantially harmed” by their absence. Though this decision primarily affected prison law libraries, it was widely seen as a reflection of prison libraries’ diminished importance in the eyes of the courts (Vogel, 2009). 

Other factors undermining prison libraries in America include the embrace of high security “Supermax” facilities, a trend towards prison privatization, the economic recession of 2008 (leading to the freezing or elimination of many prison librarian and educator positions (Lehmann 2011)), the introduction of re-entry programs in isolation from prison library programs, and the continued funding of “faith based” initiatives that compete with prison libraries for limited funds (Vogel, 2009). 

 On a deeper level, prison libraries suffer from a punitive approach to incarceration on judicial and congressional levels. This approach — which emphasizes punishment over rehabilitation and desistance — also finds expression in the mass media, with the result that most Americans are “bombarded with fictionalized and docu-images of prison, prisoners, and prison life,” images which tend to represent incarcerated people as sinister, hyper-violent sociopaths (Vogel 2009). Significantly, these depictions often represent prison libraries as spaces where inmates become further radicalized, encounter dangerous ideas, or hatch criminal plans (Stearns, 2004). 

Lack of advocacy for prisoners and prison libraries both results from and exacerbates these caricaturized, negative portrayals. The ALA has come under fire for its insufficient lobbying efforts on behalf of incarcerated library patrons, with some arguing that the organization forgets — or refuses to acknowledge — “that prisoners are a library constituency too” (Vogel, 2009). In the absence of sustained public advocacy from larger library organizations, prison libraries are vulnerable to a lack of recognition and support from prison administrators, a situation that further contributes to their diminished state (Garner, 2017). 

 Further, prison libraries are neither guaranteed nor expressly prevented by any “federal laws, constitutional provisions, or Supreme Court decisions” (Vogel, 1997). As a result, prison libraries exist in a highly ambiguous legal gray area. Advocacy on behalf of increased legal protections for prison libraries might go a long way towards addressing the lack of empirical data in the field. 

Recent mainstream discussions about the devastating and disproportionate impacts of mass incarceration perhaps signal a change in our public attitudes towards prisons and their inhabitants. At the least, there seems a growing recognition that the majority of American prison conditions are not conducive to any form of rehabilitation (some research suggests the opposite, in fact). Nonetheless, the above examples demonstrate that hostile perceptions of prisoners and prison libraries lead to their diminishment and complicate efforts to evaluate their impact on one another. 

Inadequate and Understaffed Facilities 

The generally inadequate status of most prison libraries goes a long way in explaining the lack of substantive research in the field. Most accounts of prison libraries make reference to the financial challenges they face. “The library program is often the lowest in priority, usually lacking an adequate budget, facilities, personnel, and moral support from the administration and custodial staff” (Barone, 1977). More recent scholarship testifies to the persistence of these issues; “As a rule, prison libraries are insufficiently funded” (Šimunić, 2016) and remain “lowest on the priority list” of state library budgets (Vogel 1997).

Among other negative outcomes, the impoverished state of prison libraries results in extremely understaffed facilities. As previously mentioned, prison librarians are often the only permanent, professionally trained employee of their library, and are commonly assisted by inmates who work part-time or volunteer. Prison librarians are thus tasked with carrying out a wide range of tasks and frequently struggle to “develop user programs and activities beyond the very basic services” (UNESCO, 2019). It is worth noting, too, that these librarians often work in professional isolation and in a highly regulated, restricted, demanding, and sometimes stressful environment. Prisons further represent a particularly difficult and unfamiliar setting for most librarians by requiring “restricted access to information, high levels of censorship, and little to no access to information technology and other resources” (Finlay & Bates, 2018). 

As if these challenges were insufficient, prison librarians are charged with the near-Herculean task of meeting “the information and diverse reading needs of a large multicultural community whose members have involuntarily been forced to live together” (ALA, 1992). In an environment in which most librarians are simply trying to keep things afloat, it is easy to understand the near-complete absence of empirical data describing the impact of their services.[4] 

In addition, many prison libraries are staffed by correctional employees who lack expertise and training in delivering library services (Šimunić, 2016). Although the IFLA advocates staffing prison libraries with professionally trained librarians, there is little evidence of widespread adherence to this recommendation. It is therefore not uncommon for prison libraries to be managed entirely by prison officers and inmates, or at least for their day-to-day operations to fall under their purview. Of course, this arrangement is better than nothing, and is a reflection of the larger lack of care and support offered prison libraries today. Nonetheless, this arrangement represents a “major obstacle to future development and to the ultimate goal of building truly professional prison libraries” (Lehmann, 2011). 

Prison librarians also commonly lack computers and other technologies typically available in most other kinds of libraries. This complicates the tracking of basic internal operations and makes the systematic collection of empirical data immensely more difficult. In a similar vein, prison libraries are excluded from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) Library Services and Technology Act, which allocates funds to be used for expanding services and accessing information resources (Lehmann, 2011). 

 Finally, prison librarians frequently lack autonomy and struggle for respect and understanding from other correctional staff. As Lehmann and Locke write, “in any profession that involves working with special populations, a narrow focus often develops in which the worker views that population only within the values and theories of that particular discipline” (Lehmann & Locke, 2005). It goes without saying that librarians and most other correctional employees operate under quite different and perhaps incompatible goals and principles. In the context of prison libraries, the “narrow focus” of each camp usually manifests in perceptions of librarians as naïve, easily manipulated “do-gooders” and correctional staff as apologists for a callous and oppressive system. It is important to note that neither view is “correct” or even useful; on the contrary, these perceptions prevent librarians and correctional staff from productively collaborating and understanding the other’s priorities and approaches. While this kind of relationship surely does not exist in every prison, it is a commonly referenced dynamic and a further obstacle to cultivating an atmosphere of trust, shared understanding, and mutual respect in prison libraries.  

In sum, disregard and lack of sufficient investment by library associations, politicians, funding institutions, and many correctional staff results in prison libraries that are often grossly underfunded and understaffed. This unfortunate reality makes the delivery of library services the primary aim of most prison librarians (quite reasonably so), and limits their ability to systematically evaluate the impact of their services.  

Professional Divides and Isolation 

Another factor contributing to the dearth of prison library research is the siloing of prison librarianship on multiple levels. Despite a surge of interest regarding inmate re-entry, relevant research and literature by and large fails to acknowledge the importance of skills encouraged by libraries (information literacy, for example) on the process of returning to society. Similarly, there is “an eerie lack of awareness about digital literacy and job preparation…in public policy guidelines” for re-entry programming” (Vogel, 2009). As a result, prison librarians are left “on the sideline” of most re-entry debates (Vogel, 2009). Librarians and library advocacy groups are similarly left out of most policy discussions regarding prisoners (UNESCO, 2019), who are themselves excluded from most education discourse (Vogel, 2009).  

A disconnect exists, too, amongst public and prison libraries. Though many public and prison libraries collaborate with one another to share staff and resources, no central guidelines exist to formalize this partnership. Initiatives developed by public libraries in regards to impact evaluation are therefore often not inclusive of prison libraries, or are never shared with them.[5] 

Finally, even if better communication between public and prison libraries was achieved, the LIS field itself has been called “isolated in considering the common problem of organizational effectiveness,” failing to draw on relevant research from the public and service sectors (Cameron & Whetten, 1983).

Seen in this light, prison libraries and prison librarians are isolated branches of an already isolated field. 

A Uniquely Challenging User-Group 

Though it is difficult to measure impact with any user group, it is perhaps more so with a population facing a disproportionate degree of personal, economic, educational, and social problems. On the whole, incarcerated individuals have lower levels of education and higher rates of illiteracy, suffer more from substance abuse and mental illness, and come from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds at significantly higher rates than non-incarcerated populations. In addition, many incarcerated people in America struggle with technology and do not speak English as their first language (Lehmann, 2011). As a result of these disproportionate disadvantages, they are frequently considered a “unique user group with special needs” (Lehmann, 2011).

These problems disproportionately affect inmates even in countries with prison systems considered more modern and humane; Scandinavian inmates likewise experience the same personal, social, and economic problems at higher rates than most civilians in these countries (Ljødal, 2011). This fact raises broader questions about the links between membership in disadvantaged minority groups and incarceration. For the purpose of the paper, however, these examples are raised in order to demonstrate the difficulties prison librarians face in attempting to meet the diverse information needs of underserved individuals facing often immense challenges in a number of areas. 

Improving Impact Evaluation in Prison Libraries        

Given this multitude of challenges, what can be done to improve the measurement of prison library services?            

To begin, most prison libraries would do well to clarify and formalize their primary services and objectives. This clarification will help determine an initial sense of overall effectiveness, and will indicate which measures are important to track. “Once roles have been selected and programs developed to support those roles, measurement of the quality of the library service becomes more exact” (ALA, 1992). Clarifying services and objectives through written policies and informal discussions might also bring attention to previously unacknowledged funding sources.           

Dissolving professional and institutional barriers can also go a long way in empowering prison librarians to better measure the impact of their services. Unanimously adopting the “public library model” will help prison libraries align with “the professional standards and ethics of the wider library profession” (Finlay & Bates, 2018). This alignment has occurred in Denmark and other Scandanavian countries, resulting in enhanced cooperation and greater access to resources and support for prison librarians (Ljødal, 2011). Increased communication and support can also be sought out between LIS professionals, researchers, and correctional staff in order to reduce hostility and “produce empirical studies that not only help the library…but can enrich both the fields of librarianship and criminology” (Stearns, 2004).            

Prison libraries can also play an increased role in relevant policy discussions amongst stakeholders and the judicial system, and can seek to establish “national and regional prison library networks and associations” (UNESCO, 2019). This would result in the creation of policy documents and practical guidelines informed by prison librarians and reflective of their ongoing experiences. Consulting prison librarians throughout the prison construction process would also lead to the establishment of optimally designed and functional library facilities; Norway is one country which regularly consults library professionals when constructing and renovating prisons (Ljødal, 2011). All of these suggestions will serve to increase representations of prison librarians in valuable processes and discussions, contributing to the creation of an atmosphere more conducive to impact evaluation.            

Similarly, increased connections can be made between re-entry efforts and prison libraries. In recent years, many state prisons have introduced re-entry curricula that include classroom instruction and assignments related to personal development, education opportunities, and financial literacy, among others (Vogel, 1997). Prison libraries have a great deal to contribute to these programs and to the fields of re-entry research and inmate education more generally; “We argue for wider inclusion of the library in contemporary research on prisoners’ experiences of learning” (Finlay & Bates, 2018).            

Public library initiatives intended to improve impact evaluation can also be adapted and extended for prison libraries. PLA’s Project Outcome initiative offers standards and tools — including survey management options, data visualizations, training resources, and custom report builders — to be used in measuring the outcomes of public library services and programs. Furthermore, data generated through this project can be shared, viewed, and discussed online, allowing library professionals to see how their particular results compare to state and national averages. Since its introduction in 2015, Project Outcome has been widely praised and expanded for academic library settings. There is no apparent reason why this initiative cannot be tailored for prison libraries as well.            

The development of a more expansive and robust theoretical context for prison libraries will provide a strong foundation on which subsequent research and data collection can occur; “A larger body of empirical evidence, grounded in relevant theoretical constructs, is needed to truly understand the role of the library in the lives of prisoners” (Finlay & Bates, 2018).  The development of “sound ideas” regarding the function and goals of prison libraries will also provide clarity and a greater degree of autonomy to prison librarians. Holistic theoretical models for prison libraries have been proposed in recent years and center on desistance research, criminogenic factors, and insights from the fields of psychology, education, and medicine, among others (Finlay & Bates, 2018). Situating the theoretical context of prison librarianship in relevant adjacent fields will encourage “interdisciplinary examinations of inmates and how prison affects them” (Stearns, 2004), and offer insights that could not be gained in isolation.             

Finally, more aggressive and sustained advocacy can be pursued in order to improve the public perception and financial status of prison libraries. Successful advocacy efforts aid in creating a culture that recognizes prison libraries as “vital contributors to the field of corrections” (Stearns, 2004) and highlight their role in promoting “recreational pursuits, education, literacy improvement, and socialization” (Ljødal, 2011). As previously discussed, advocacy is also central to increasing visibility among funders, stakeholders, and others “responsible for increasing noncustodial budgets” (Vogel 2009). 


Prison libraries face significant challenges in regards to evaluating the impact of their services. At the same time, numerous reforms can be pursued in the short and long term in order to begin enhancing and formalizing data collection processes. Improving the measurement of prison libraries services will benefit inmates, library and correctional staff, researchers looking to better understand the role prison libraries play in facilitating re-entry, and anyone seeking to convince funders, politicians, and the public of prison libraries’ largely unrealized value and potential.


American Correctional Association, & Freedman, E. I. (Eds.). (1950). Library manual for correctional institutions: A handbook of library standards and procedures for prisons, reformatories for men and women and other adult correctional institutions. New York.

Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (Ed.). (1992). Library standards for adult correctional institutions, 1992. Chicago: ALA.

Barone, R. M. (1977). DeProgramming Prison Libraries. Special Libraries.

Behan, C. (2014). Learning to escape: prison education, rehabilitation and the potential for transformation. Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, 1(1), 20-31.

Books beyond bars: The transformative potential of prison libraries—UNESCO Digital Library. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2019, from

Clark, S., & MacCreaigh, E. (2006). Library services to the incarcerated: Applying the public library model in correctional facility libraries. Westport, Conn: Libraries Unlimited.

Collection Development and Circulation Policies in Prison Libraries: An Exploratory Survey of Librarians in Us Correctional Institutions. (2012). Library Quarterly, 82(4), 407–427.

Conrad, S. (2017). Prison librarianship policy and practice. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Cook, G. (2019). Raj Chetty’s American Dream—The Atlantic. Retrieved October 20, 2019, from

Coyle, W. (1987). Libraries in prisons: A blending of institutions. Greenwood Press.

Dalton, M. (2013). There is a Lack of Standardization in the Collection Development and Circulation Policies of Prison Library Services. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 8(2), 248–250.

Finlay, J., & Bates, J. (n.d.). What is the Role of the Prison Library? The Development of a Theoretical Foundation. 20.

Hughes, T. & Wilson, D.J. (2011). Reentry trends in the U.S. Retrieved November 25, 2019 from

IFLA — Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners. (n.d.). Retrieved November 21, 2019, from

LeDonne, M. (1977). Survey of Library and Informational Problems in Correctional Facilities: A Retrospective Review. LIBRARY TRENDS, 18.

Lehmann, V. (2003). Planning and Implementing Prison Libraries: Strategies and resources. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from

Lehmann, V., & Locke, J. (2005). Guidelines for library services to prisoners (3rd ed). The Hague: IFLA Headquarters.

Lehmann, V. (2011). Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries. Library Trends, 59(3), 490–508.

Lehmann, V. (2011). Library and information services to incarcerated persons: Global perspectives. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343 (1996). (n.d.). Retrieved from

Lithgow, S. D., & Hepworth, J. B. (1993). Performance measurement in prison libraries: Research methods, problems and perspectives. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 25(2), 61–69.

Ljødal, H. K., & Ra, E. (2011). Prison Libraries the Scandinavian Way: An Overview of the Development and Operation of Prison Library Services. Library Trends, 59(3), 473–489.

Rada Europy. (2006). European prison rules. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publ.

Rubin, R. J., & Suvak, D. (1995). Libraries Inside: A Practical Guide for Prison Librarians. McFarland and Company, Inc.

Shofmann, F. (2016). Performance Measurement. Retrieved November 21, 2019, from Public Library Association (PLA) website:

Šimunić, Z., Tanacković, S. F., & Badurina, B. (2014). Library services for incarcerated persons: A survey of recent trends and challenges in prison libraries in Croatia. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science48(1), 72–89. doi: 10.1177/0961000614538481

State of Recidivism (n.d.). Retrieved from

Stearns, R. (2004) The Prison Library: An Issue for Corrections, or a Correct Solution for Its Issues? Behavioral & Social Sciences Librarian, 23:1, 49-80.

UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Vanhouse, N. (1989). Output Measures in Libraries. Library Trends, (38): 2. University of Illinois.

Vogel, B. (1997). Bailing out Prison Libraries: The Politics of Crime and Punishment Frame the Crisis in Prison Library Service. Library Journal, (19): 35.

Vogel, B. (2009). The prison library primer: A program for the twenty-first century. Scarecrow Press.

Warr, J. (2016). Transformative dialogues: (Re)privileging the informal in prison education. Prison Service Journal, 225, 18-25.

Whetten, D. A., & Cameron, K. S. (1991). Organizational effectiveness: a comparison of multiple models. San Diego (California): Academic Press.

Wilhelmus, D. W. (1999) A new emphasis for correctional facilities’ libraries. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 25(2), 114-120.

[1] The term “forgotten field” was first used by Suzanna Conrad in her 2017 work, Prison librarianship policy and practice. Conrad, S. (2017). Prison librarianship policy and practice. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

[2] This according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2011 Reentry trends in the U.S. report. Hughes, T. & Wilson, D.J. (2011). Reentry trends in the U.S. Retrieved from


[4] It is worth noting, too, that many librarians have little to no training in statistics, data analysis, and performance measurement (Vanhouse, 1989). This presents somewhat of a catch-22, as outside researchers have been shown to influence behavior and shape experimental results in undesired ways (Lithgow & Hepworth, 1993).

[5] Take, for example, the Public Library Association’s (PLA) Output Measures for Public Libraries — a set of standards “widely used in the public library community” (Vanhouse, 1989) — as well as PLA’s more recent Project Outcome initiative. While the latter was recently expanded for academic library settings, there is no indication that the PLA has considered adapting these resources for prison libraries.

Bringing the Cloud Back Down to Earth


On Sunday, October 20th I attended the Radical Networks conference and attended two talks: The Carbon Footprint of the Internet with Jasmine Soltani and Everything has a Resonant Frequency: Crystals, Networks, and Crystal Networks with Ingrid Burrington. Both talks covered a lot of ground (or rather, earth) on the sweeping topic of the environmental impact of the Internet and the manufacture of its physical infrastructure by two very broad thinkers whose research has forged ahead in areas where concrete data is hard to come by.  For clarity and concision, I will focus on my main takeaways from the first talk, the Carbon Footprint of the Internet.

Soltani began her talk by explaining the bottom-up approach she and other activists have taken to calculating the carbon footprint of the Internet in the absence of definitive, trustworthy sources: identify all the components and processes that make up the Internet, calculate the energy consumption of each, and identify the energy sources of each and convert that energy amount to the CO2 equivalent. To date there still exists no surefire way to calculate the carbon footprint of the Internet, and therefore estimates of the energy intensity of the Internet diverge by a factor of 20,000, which can in part be explained by different definitions of what the Internet is and what it includes (Hilty & Aebischer, 2015).

Current estimates state that the Internet accounts for about 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Belkhir & Elmeligi, 2018), which is both significantly less than what I would have predicted and still too abstract to comprehend.  For comparison, in Greenpeace’s suspiciously optimistic 2014 report on renewable energy and the Internet, Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet, the authors state that if “the Cloud” were a country, it would be the 6th largest consumer of electricity on the planet (Cook et al., 2014).

One fact that is generally agreed upon is that the most energy consumptive element of the Internet is the manufacture and maintenance of its physical infrastructure, beginning with client devices (49%), Telecom infrastructure (37%), and data centers (14%; The Climate Group, 2008). For example, client devices, which refers to all of the devices we use to access the Internet (mobile phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, etc.) account for the highest proportion of energy consumption; depending on the study, estimates vary from 40% (Belkhir & Elmeligi, 2018) to 53% of the total energy consumption of the Internet (Raghavan & Ma, 2011).  Most of this energy consumption is due to the manufacturing phase of client devices (referred to variously as either Embodied Energy or Grey Energy) and accounts for 45-80% of the total device life cycle energy (Hischier et al., 2015). 

There are numerous complications with this measure and others like it because not all of these devices are used to access the Internet 100% of the time—someone can use a laptop to write a paper, for instance, without ever using the Internet, nor are device lifecycles consistent across all users—one person can use a phone for 6 months and another for 6 years. These are just some examples of the nuances that make definitive calculations about the carbon footprint of the Internet very difficult, if not impossible. (Ingrid Burrington touches on the difficulties these metrics pose in her article “The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge” in The Atlantic.)  I found Soltani’s research commendable because despite the scarcity of data available and the opacity of the data that does exist, she has forged ahead and brought attention to this timely topic.

What was also surprising about her talk—and where she differs substantially from Burrington—is she remains optimistic about the overall positive impact that the Internet could have in reducing net carbon emissions in other sectors despite the Internet’s own significant contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions. While she herself strays away from a techno-optimist stance, she does cite some suspiciously sanguine (and perhaps outmoded) views, such as those from an optimistic 2008 report by The Climate Group: “The scale of emissions reductions that could be enabled by the smart integration of ICT into new ways of operating, living, working, learning and traveling makes the sector a key player in the fight against climate change, despite its own growing carbon footprint,” (The Climate Group, 2008).  As an example of this, she mentioned that teleconferencing takes about 7% of the total energy cost that a face-to-face meeting would, taking into account factors like different modes of transportation, etc. (Ong et al., 2014).  

She does concede that other examples of the “dematerialization” of information, including the move from traditional modes of music and movie distribution to digital streaming platforms, have less of a positive environment impact: depending on the study, streaming video is either only slightly more efficient than DVD distribution (Shehabi et al., 2014), or has an even higher net energy impact that is still rapidly increasing (The Shift Project, 2019). Whatever the exact figure is, it is highly impactful due to the fact that video streaming accounts for 64% of all internet traffic (Ejembi & Bhatti 2015).

The onus of finding environmentally sustainable solutions to this predicament we are all in should undoubtedly lay with the tech companies and governments with the greatest carbon footprints, and not on individuals.  If one trusted the government to oversee the private sector, we could take inspiration from Paul Ford’s proposal to establish a government agency which he calls the Digital Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for protecting citizens in the event of repeated “data spills,” (Ford, 2018). How fitting, then, to also imagine tasking this hypothetical branch of a rotten bureaucracy with the additional task of disciplining the tech industry and cleaning up its messes.

Despite the absence of government legislation and private sector self-regulation, Soltani says that individual consumers can also take action.  Her suggestions include extending the life of your client devices, using ad blockers (online advertising is very energy consumptive), protecting your data privacy (the storing of your personal data is also energy consumptive), and “stream lower quality videos, I guess,” (Soltani, 2019).  All of these actions, save for electing to stream grainy YouTube videos, are all actions that have manifold benefits for consumers: less money spent on replacing devices and less personal data being collected, stored and sold to marketers and insurance companies at our citizenry’s expense. 

While these actions she suggests may benefit individual consumers and make a small environmental impact, they do nothing to challenge the structural logic of late techno-capitalism and its extractivist methodology.  Capitalism has always benefited from the dislocation of earth materials from Earth, the dematerialization of commodities and the invisibilization of labor. What is unprecedented at this stage of capitalism is that these existing abstractions of capitalist production have themselves become further abstracted and etherealized in the image of the Cloud. The semiotics of the Cloud further mystifies the terms of commodification and shrouds its mechanics in a blanket of mysticism. Divorcing the Internet from the materiality of the Internet in the image of the Cloud directly benefits the Internet’s profiteers and limits people’s ability to see the ideological machinery at work in their daily lives. 

To uncloak this mantle of mysticism surrounding the Cloud, Nathan Ensmenger proposes treating the Cloud as a “type of factory” and interrogating it as such:

[W]hat kind of a factory is it? Who works there, and what kind of work to they do, and how is it different from the type of work previously performed by factory workers? Where does it fit in a larger technological, labor, and environmental history of human industry? And perhaps most importantly, how did it come to be seen as categorically different? (Ensmenger, 2018, p. 20)

This historical-materialist critique of the Cloud is a promising start towards resituating the Internet in its material, political, social, and cultural context. Only by bringing the Cloud back down to Earth can we begin to imagine a more equitable distribution of power in our hyper-networked reality.

A Bolivian family at work at a salt mine
A Bolivian family at work at a salt mine by Robin Hammond for Daily Mail


This talk raised many questions I am still grappling with weeks later. As libraries and cultural centers move towards digitizing their assets and moving more and more services online, endeavors often hailed as universally beneficial and in line with our coupled missions to make information more accessible and to preserve it for posterity, we do so with little to no heed for how this impacts our shared environmental future. When environmental collapse comes to a head it won’t matter if our books are conserved in print format or preserved digitally. As long as the lifecycles of the hardware we’re using to preserve digital formats continue to physically deteriorate, and the software we use for the same mission continues to rapidly accelerate, information professionals are forced to continually endeavor on the perilous journey of continuous data migration, making us complicit in the whole system of filling the earth with toxic, obsolete electronic equipment and mining the same earth yet again for more rare minerals to inaugurate another terminally obsolete technological lifecycle, ad infinitum.  Infinite, that is, until we run out of minerals.

“Looking from the perspective of deep time,” Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler write in their essay on the human labor and planetary resources required to operate an Amazon Echo, “we are extracting Earth’s history to serve a split second of technological time, in order to build devices that are often designed to be used for no more than a few years,” (Crawford & Joler, 2018). All media is an extension of the earth, be it codices made of paper manufactured from trees which took hundreds to thousands of years to grow, or be it a PDF viewed on a laptop composed of lithium, cobalt, and silicon (and the 14 other rare earth minerals necessary to manufacture a single laptop or smartphone) that took billions of years for Earth to produce. Where we now differ from Gutenberg’s time is the dizzying rate of acceleration at which we are moving towards total depletion of the earth materials needed to produce the information communication technologies that are embedded in the infrastructure of every branch of daily life. 


Belkhir, L., & Elmeligi, A. (2018). Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 177, 448–463.

Burrington, I. (2015, December 16). The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge. Retrieved from The Atlantic website:

Cook, G., Dowdall, T., & Wang, Y. (2014). Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet [Greenpeace USA report]. Retrieved from Greenpeace website: legacy/Global/usa/planet3/PDFs/clickingclean.pdf.

Crawford, K., & Joler, V. (2018, September 7). Anatomy of an AI System. AI Now Institute and Share Lab. Retrieved from

Efoui-Hess, M. (2019). The Unsustainable Use of Online Video. Retrieved from

Ejembi, O., & Bhatti, S. N. (2015). Client-Side Energy Costs of Video Streaming. 2015 IEEE International Conference on Data Science and Data Intensive Systems, 252–259.

Ensmenger, N. (2018). The environmental history of computing. Technology and Culture, 59(5), S7–S33.

Ford, P. (2018, March 21). Facebook Is Why We Need a Digital Protection Agency. Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved from

Hammond, R. (2009, April). In search of Lithium: The battle for the 3rd element. Retrieved from

Hilty, L. M., & Aebischer, B. (2015). ICT for Sustainability: An Emerging Research Field. In L. M. Hilty & B. Aebischer (Eds.), ICT Innovations for Sustainability (pp. 3–36).

Ong, D., Moors, T., & Sivaraman, V. (2014). Comparison of the energy, carbon and time costs of videoconferencing and in-person meetings. Computer Communications, 50, 86–94.

Raghavan, B., & Ma, J. (2011). The energy and emergy of the Internet. Proceedings of the 10th ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks, 9. ACM.

Shehabi, A., Walker, B., & Masanet, E. (2014). The energy and greenhouse-gas implications of internet video streaming in the United States. Environmental Research Letters, 9(5), 054007.

Soltani, J. (2019, October). The Carbon Footprint of the Internet. Presented at the Radical Networks Conference 2019, New York, NY.

The Climate Group. (2008, June 30). Smart 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age (pp. 1–87).

Alternative Traces: Networks of Community, Care and Control at the Cybernetics Library

At the top of the stairs, in a nondescript building in Manhattan’s upper west side lives a library; chronicling the history and differing manifestations of a school of thought critical to the development of computation and the algorithmic culture we live in today. The building is Prime Produce, an artist, educator, and community organizing co-op and the collection is  The Cybernetics Library.

The “library” is perhaps best described as a “library of systems rather than a library of technology” says Sarah Hamerman, Project Cataloguing Specialist for Rare Books at Princeton University Libraries and Cybernetics Librarian. Through a physical and digital collection of books, zines, ephemera, articles, and guides the Library works to trace the history of cybernetics as a conceptual framework, unearth it’s influence on the history of computation and political organization, and make visitors and users aware that the questions we have today about how we might ethically and justly relate to each other, to non-human agencies, and deal with power in a mediated world are not new, but at the heart of the entangled history of society and technology in the broadest sense.

But what is cybernetics and why is it so important to computing? The word may sound familiar to anyone even adjacently related to computer science, information technologies or speculative fiction. “Cybernetics” is attributed to MIT mathematician, Norbert Weiner,  who articulated this “new science” in his 1948 publication of the same name (Kline, 2015). Weiner defined cybernetics as the study of “systems of communication and control in the animal and machine”. Synthesizing research done and observations made by several scientists and scholars including Claude Shannon (who published his “Mathematical Theory of Information that same year), anthropologist, Margaret Mead and John von Neumann and largely focused on optimizing information sharing in relation to the war effort, cybernetics suggested that the mechanisms of feedback, or the movement of outputs and inputs within a complex system, that were being applied to the design of machines could be applied to mapping, understanding, and by extension, influencing biological life (human and non-human) as well (Kline, 2015).

Looking at the history of Cybernetics is also looking at the history of the development of computation in service of military apparatus; charting a lineage of influences from Weiner and Shannon, to Jay Forrester and the development of the missile defense system during the Cold War and eventually to the ARPANET, whose development was commissioned and funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and would lead directly to the internet. But the use and application of cybernetics is complex and muti-faceted. When I asked Sarah to define Cybernetics she made sure to situate it’s birth within this military context while pointing to alternative interpretations that were also critical to the birth of Silicon Valley:

“Cybernetics is a kind of trans-disciplinary set of ideas that emerged in the 40s and 50s. It’s a way of looking at how social, technical and engineered systems operate and how mechanisms of feedback alter the functioning of the system…This set of theories was quite important in the early development of computation, which did come out of a military context. But then on the other side of things, this way of developing a dynamic and systemic approach to thinking about the flows of information, the flows of power, and the flows of energy within mechanical systems became interpreted within the social sphere as a way of looking at how society could be organized through mechanisms that were more dynamic, non-hierarchical, in-flux and potentially [more] egalitarian than the kind of very hierarchical systems of order that had operated until this 1960s growth of social consciousness in the West.

So on the one hand [Cybernetics] has been used by existing structures of power to kind of optimize systems and is often talked about in this more technocratic way; in terms of control. But then on this counter-cultural side [Cybernetics] was thought of as ways to engineer these more fluid and open and dynamic systems; ecologically, socially, politically, what have you.”

One example of the counter cultural history of cybernetics is in the influence of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counter culture magazine founded by Stewart Brand and published in California in the late 60s. As Sarah explained, “the magazine was very much a catalog of resources for building a “back to the land” communalist lifestyle detached from the urban capitalist social formations”. This proposed social ordering was widely distributed and influential with the mass migration of young Americans to communes in the 60s, but was imagined as connected to technology as it was to the “natural world”.

All of the books, manuals and different resources for building stuff were positioned as tools through the rhetoric of Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. The Whole Earth Catalog ended up being really inspiring to a lot of the initial founders of Silicon Valley companies and what has become the modern big tech industry. This logic of the tool you can see having this throughline from the counter-cultural usage of the WEC to the technocratic of the term tool.

Every kind of program, digital system or app is talked about by these designers and developers as a tool…the ultimate goal of technology is to be these tools to make getting access to information and goods easier for this imagined urban white male consumer and to make invisible the systems of energy and labor that go into the construction of these tools to smoothly optimize or facilitate this access to information.

There is an easier relationship with something that is “just a tool”. The logic of “technology as tool” shifts responsibility for all possible outcomes (and avoiding them) to the user; it obscures and blocks interrogation of the various economic, social, and environmental agents and formations that go into the construction of said “tools”. We should think critically about the behaviors made possible by what is optimized for in a design and what is not. This perspective, the neutrality of the tool, flows into our contemporary moment where machine learning and other forms of algorithmic decision making are positioned as inherently unbiased because they are technological constructs and are therefore objective. Further, as danah boyd and Kate Crawford speak to in “Critical Questions for Big Data”, the supposed objectivity of the big data paradigm obscures the messiness at every level of the process from procedures of collection to interpretation.

Unnamed Diagram, Cybernetics Library Image Collection

“I think as a group, as the Library, we want to make visible the real political complexity of what cybernetics is and how the use of this method of thinking can go wrong, while also thinking about how we can consider it as a methodology to be more aware of our social environment and to build these not necessarily technical but, also, social tools of inclusion.”

This complexity Sarah was speaking to starts in interrogating the lineage of cybernetics. Norbert Weiner to Sillicon valley is one story of this. But this narrative nests within the mythology the development of personal computing as a group of ruggedly individual geniuses tinkering in the proto-maker spaces of their home garages. But if we understand cybernetics as a way of thinking about how and where phenomena, human or otherwise link and are linked to one another, relate and are related to one another and move between and are moved between one another then cybernetic thinking existed long before personal computing, or post-war information theory knowledge , or human ways of knowing at all.

We might look at Project Cybersyn; a proposal for a computer system that would be used to manage newly nationalized industries in 1970s Chile is part of this cybernetic lineage. The fungal networks of mycelium (the root networks of fungi) that weave throughout the roots of trees in forests moving food and chemical signals (read: information) between individuals and colloquially referred to by biologists as “the internet of trees” are cybernetics. Patricia Hill-Collins’s articulation of the matrix of domination through which benefits and harms are distributed throughout populations based on race, class, gender, ability and many other constructed identities is also a type of cybernetics. Justice facilitator and community organizer, Adrienne Maree Browne’s articulation of an “emergent strategy for building complex webs of care and change that scale the transformations social movements work towards”, highly inspired by the work of Detroit based community organizers Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs is a also a type of cybernetics (Brown, 2017). The usefulness of this thinking as a framework is not in translating various phenomena into “cybernetic manifestations”, but as a lens through which we might look at the relatedness of systems of knowing, sharing, being, and making on their own terms.

“As far as technology goes, I think that [the Library] as a group like to think of technologies as things that aren’t necessarily computational or aren’t necessarily engineered or mechanical systems. Different social protocols or ways of passing on information from person to person, sharing food, or constructing rituals can also be technologies that have a very important social function; allowing communities to survive and thrive or allowing relations to be measured in some way. 

Framing technology as something that operates beyond the logic of the computational is a way for me of bringing in practices that are developed by women, communities of color, or Indigenous communities as always already technological or giving value to practices that operate outside these very strict Western Patriarchal logic of technology”

Inspired by the non-hierarchical and decentralized nature of cybernetics, the library is run not as a formal organization but as a collective. As Sarah describes, “Everyone contributes based on their abilities and availabilities and interests and skills for each project”. Where the six primary members (Charles Eppley, Sarah Hamerman, Sam Hart, David Hecht, Melanie Hoff, Dan Taeyoung) work together with a network of collaborators to organize the books and creating searchable records using LibraryThing. The books are almost all donations from private collections, or donated works from fans, scholars, users, and collaborators. Though Sarah notes that additions are also bought by the group, particularly to expand the voices and practices represented within the collection.

While the physical library is browsible primarily by request, engagement can take many forms, as Sarah describes: “Our activities are centered around pop-up libraries and workshops that either interface with other organizations and the public in certain ways or draw out specific themes of the library in different ways”. Past activities include the Cybernetics Conference (for which the collection originally began) and building a selection of titles investigating the cybernetics of sex for a workshop at the School for Poetic Computation, where faculty member (and cybernetics library co-founder, Melanie Hoff) was investigating gender, sexuality, the body and embodiment beyond the human.

Cybernetics, at least in the ways the Library would like users and visitors to think of it, asks us to consider the questions we have about technology today, the worlds we build with and through it are not new, but the newest iteration of our struggles around how we relate to each other, how we relate to the world, how power operates, and how we might reshuffle the pieces of a system to move us toward radical new ends. It’s a potentially critical framework for learning to live in a world where those with the privilege of being technology creators increasingly optimize for (read: shape and influence, explicitly and implicitly) particular formations of community and society. On the one hand we must look at the history of technology and computing as one directly connected to state driven innovations meant to intercede in feedback and shape systems towards militaristic and commercial ends. The Cybernetics Library would like us to consider what other networks we can and have built.

In light of this drive there’s an alternative story we can tell to the one that opened this article. In an artist/organizer co-op on Manhattan’s upper west side live a Library. But the library doesn’t only live there. It’s integrally linked to a community of users around the world, to the work of thinkers, artists, activists, and beings (human and otherwise). Talking to one another and working in around “technology”, whether that manifests in human or non-human agencies, digitally or analog. Wherever communication exists or becomes noise (which itself also communicates), wherever we might consider relationships of power, wherever we are thinking about how coalition and community are formed and maintained, cybernetic phenomena are happening.

As Sarah described at the end of our interview, “I want people to walk away from this collection considering how communities can work together to build systems and technologies that are rooted in an ethic of solidarity and care and that are developed to think more expansively and outside of capitalist solutionist logic of the things that technologies can do. I think that we can begin to imagine differently, informed by how technologies have been implemented already.”

Works Cited:

boyd,  danah, & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA : AK Press,.

Kline, R. R. (2015). The cybernetics moment: Or why we call our age the information age. Retrieved from

Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics; or, Control and communications in the animal and the machine. Paris,: Hermann;

Interview: UX & its social concerns

I recently had the opportunity to interview Nina Mistry, the co-founder, and chief product officer of Artistic License Creative. She has been connected to the UX filed for more than two decades and my interview goal is to gain insights about what drives this profession today and her understanding of technology within our social realm. Artistic License Creative is a start-up that is driven by social change and innovation through the medium of digital technology. While the company is based in Toronto we met on her recent visit to New York where she shared her views on the UX field and social concerns surrounding it. 

I had prepared a set of questions to structure the interview and almost all areas of interest were covered. It started with sharing details about herself and how she landed in the UX field. She is originally from Mumbai, India where she completed her undergraduate education in textile design. She graduated in the year 1999, a year where the internet had landed in most of our households. She believes that it was the internet that helped people become entrepreneurs overnight. “It made the whole world become your market,” says Nina. Her first job was as a designer at a small scale e-commerce company in India. After this, she went on to work with the software development team of interactive television that revolutionized live voting in India. She has also contributed to the design of the Target app and continues worked on many such projects even today.

Nina believes the whole idea of UX truly came to life when Apple launched its iPhone. She believes that the Iphone’s scroll user experience with the pinch and scroll and embedded keyboard scroll were game-changers in the field of technology. This is when design moved beyond its aesthetic principals and become an interactive experience. Her company Artistic License Creative (url in references) emphasizes on delivering content and experience(i.e. ways the content is consumed. Her company collaborates with people and works on projects that are driven by a cause. Whether it’s making documentaries, e-learning platforms websites or mobile applications they are driven by the purpose of making a difference. 

Nina believes that it’s her curiosity and love for simplicity that makes her a relevant UX designer today. She thrives on the fulfillment derived by watching users use, react and cherish her designs. “Watching my vision materialize into an experience is the best feeling ever,” says Nina. The field design experience today seems to be divided into two distinct fields the User Research and User Experience field. When asked about this categorization she expressed that the main goal of a designer should seek solutions and there should be no distinct dividing lines in the process. The research process builds curiosity and sets a solid foundation for the design process.

Her research process mainly includes interviews and observations. Nina says “Sony conducted a focus group for their boom box. When asked about the color preference 70% picked black with 30% picked yellow. At the end of the session, participants were given the boom box as a gift for their participation and had to pick it up on their way out. All participants picked the black one. When people are observed they behave differently. It’s usually not what they say.” This relates to McGrath, “Methodology matters” reading which discusses the limitations of research. The article talks about how the limitation of one method can be covered by another and how using more than one research method would help in more realistic insights. For example, Sony’s interview flaw was coved by observing the audience making a realistic choice in person. 

Furthermore, her design process is driven by the AGILE method which involves quick sketching, user testing and validation followed by multiple iterations. She says “more than a design process, it’s a co-creating process. It’s not just about user opinions but you think like the user.” We then moved on to discuss any specific experience or innovation that has caught her eye in recent times, she stated that a big influencer to determining this is how ethically the product is made and functions. When further asked about unethical innovations of technology today she discussed the emotional impact of Instagram’s need for maximum likes for validation leading to anxiety to FaceBook’s “fake news” targeted at psychological warfare. This connects to our discussion on Vaidhyanathan’s, “Anti-Social Media” which suggests only a limited online newsfeed for it’s its user. Nina re-iterated Vaidhyanathan’s take on users being oblivious to counterclaims taking away the reality of the situation. 

She states Aza Raskin, the creator of the infinite scroll says that he “regrets creating it in the first place.” Elaborating more on the infinite scroll she states the user is targeted with ads  and news aimed to change their opinion. And the common user is taken for granted and exploited for their lack of awareness. Nina states Google having all our information from our bank accounts to our heath records is unethical. And stresses that the “I agree to the terms and conditions check-box that people check is the biggest lie, as if you read the terms you would probably not agree.” This again connects to Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization” which discusses our lack of privacy as a price we pay or collateral damage for using technology.

When asked about threats associated with design in the future Nina mentioned that the biggest threat with artificial intelligence and machine learning replacing human jobs. What kind of jobs would humans do it machines do most of what we do today? How will we adapt to this change? Would third world countries even have the infrastructure to adapt? She predicts that there will come a time where there will be no jobs leading eventually leading to an economic setback.

To conclude, speaking to Nina was a great way to validate all our class discussions associated with technology and social concerns. Nina was open and thrilled to answer all the questions. She made it a fun discussion where we both were sharing our views and adding on to each other’s arguments. Overall, she concluded with saying as a young aspiring design professional one should always have the wonder and curiosity along with seeking ethical solutions. “Be less motivated by monetary gains and more motivated by social good.” She concluded.


  • Vaidhyanathan, Siva. Antisocial media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Zuboff, Shoshana. “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (2015): 75-89.
  • McGrath, Joseph E. “Methodology matters: Doing research in the behavioral and social sciences.” In Readings in Human–Computer Interaction, pp. 152-169. Morgan Kaufmann, 1995
  • Artistic License Creative. Accessed November 19, 2019.