The Relevance of Libraries in Juvenile Detention

Posted: May 24, 2014 in On Our Minds, Resources

By Jennifer Sweeney and Amy Cheney

Youth in institutions across the country often have negative past experiences with books and reading, which in turn influence their literacy skill level. While there are many causes and reasons for this negative past experience, librarians (and others) can and do turn this experience around by matching a kid to the perfect book for them. Do you remember that perfect book for you? Maybe it was when you were a preschooler, teen or even an adult. In general, once someone has that positive experience, a real transformation occurs around reading and literacy.

I myself  (Amy) have been privilege to this life changing moment for thousands of youth, watching them blossom into excited readers and participants in the world of books and reading.

If that were ALL librarians did for youth, it’d be enough.  But there is more. Libraries do tremendous things for the youth in our facilities.  Not only are there books to read, but computers, ipads, and resources.  Kids can listen to music, play games, get a book on tape, enroll into and get started on college coursework, register to vote, send birthday cards to family members, or meet a famous author, musician, or hero in person.  (If this doesn’t sound like your library, please call us, we can help.)  We have kids learning many new things when they walk through our doors: Russian. Career options. How to draw. A new or different perspective. A sense of themselves as a reader or someone who is good at or likes to read. The library is the place where youth can participate democratically in the world of readers and writers.

With the estimated reading level of incarcerated youth averaging around 5th grade, what we want, of course, is to get them reading and increase their literacy skills. We understand the power of reading and the power of the ideas that we provide access to.  However, the most important thing about libraries is they provide a fundamental and profound  experience for incarcerated youth: Free Choice.

  The key to increasing literacy is to provide a place where kids are free to choose what they want to read. Free and voluntary choice of reading material has been proven to increase literacy, and is cited by some as THE most important way to improve literacy.* If our collections are full of books that express the range of problems and struggles and hopes that are so central to our kids’ lives, our kids will read.  If our kids know we respect their right to choose, and respect their choices, they will read.  If they have a choice, they can also choose not to read a book that isn’t right for them – whether it’s too scary, too depressing, or any other thing that doesn’t serve their needs. We see it happen every day.

Sometimes kids just need to escape their problems for a while; the library is a safe place where a kid can get away in a comic book or a funny story.  We know our kids are curious, and they want books that enable them to discover and explore different worlds.  Our kids are growing up too, and they need to learn about themselves, their minds, and their bodies.

They need to understand their lives, and connect with stories that validate their experiences.  The library is a place where our kids can safely connect with others who have experienced the violence they have experienced, gotten hooked on drugs like they have, and have struggled to find answers.  The library is where kids can learn how to change their lives, by experiencing the lives of other people who have been in similar situations and found ways to overcome similar problems.

We know that our kids need to learn how to care about each other, their surroundings, and property.  The library is the community space where we demonstrate respect for books and responsibility for their care, all within the context of free choice. While we spend time talking about respecting books  —  the importance of taking care of the books because of their life-changing power for all of us — we stress the honor system.  Books, reading, and the entire library experience need to be free from anything punitive, to allow youth to choose how they interact with the library.

The conversations we have with our kids about what they are reading reinforce the message too, as do the authors and speakers we bring in to talk to our kids.  The power of meeting and talking to real people who have struggled, survived, and written about it is extraordinary.  We have seen firsthand the change in our kids as they realize they are not alone and that their lives have value.  That there is hope.

We provide the guidance and setting for safe space for meaningful conversations about their thoughts, opinions and reactions to  what they are reading, and their motivation to challenge themselves to move out of comfort zones both literal and figurative.  As librarians, we see firsthand the positive effect free choice has, on the kids’ motivation and excitement to read, and thus their concrete and active choice to change their lives.

The library is where our kids can choose to take that step to succeed. This is our central goal, as librarians: to provide a place for our kids to choose. To read what they want to, to find their interests, to take independent and freely chosen steps.  As librarians, our job is to provide the space for this to happen.

This is the relevance of the library in our facilities.



Jennifer Sweeney, MSLS, PhD teaches in the Department of Information Studies at UCLA and in the College of Computing and Informatics at Drexel University.  Dr. Sweeney was the 2010 recipient of the American LIbrary Association Diversity Research Grant investigating the nature and scope of juvenile detention library services in a national survey.  Her book, Literacy: A Way Our For At-Risk Youth, portrays in detail the unique issues and challenges in juvenile detention library services and recommends library services tailored to helping teens improve decision making and cognitive skills.   Earlier, she held research positions with the University of California, Davis and UCLA.  She currently provides program evaluation and planning services to libraries and nonprofits.

* Krashen, S. D. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

In a study comparing reading comprehension for students in free reading programs against students in traditional reading programs, 94 percent of the students in FVR did as well as or better than those in traditional programs. (p.3)

Boys in a free reading program in a reform school for one year increased reading comprehension scores on the SAT 18% while a control group increased scores only 8%. (p. 4)

“In-school free reading studies and “out of school” self-reported free voluntary reading studies show that more reading results in better reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, and grammatical development.” p. 17

Numerous studies show that students prefer free reading to traditional language arts activities.  p. 30

Children who engage in self-selected reading  say they enjoy reading more than students whose books are assigned to them. p.33


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