Today I did a two-hour Reference Volunteer Training with the Prison Library Support Network (PLSN). How it works: incarcerated people write to PLSN with reference questions that require research they can’t access in jail or prison then volunteers do the research and send the information via an intermediary from PLSN.
After learning the basics of the program, we were divided into two-person teams in Zoom break-out rooms to answer one letter per team. We didn’t actually answer the letters, but did go through the steps in the process: read and identify the question(s) in the letter; review the mail policy for that particular prison*; brainstorm and list the information sources we’d use to answer our question(s); write out an example of how we’d list the reference materials (mailing address, URL, formal citation); describe any special formatting (PDF of website page, screenshot of chart, etc.).
It was an eye-opening experience. One of the trainers asked us to consider how many random things we “google” each day, which helped put into perspective some of the questions asked. For instance, my team’s letter was a list of 10 questions** that were a mix of “important” and what might be considered “not-so-important” questions that someone on the outside might quickly search on their phone while in conversation with a friend. Incarcerated people don’t have that ability, so I totally get how they maybe just can’t stop wondering what is the world’s longest snake species.*** My teammate and I prioritized the questions and focused on how we’d gather information for those, with the hope we’d also have room in the response for the “not-so-important” answers.
It’s a little intimidating to think about being entrusted with these letters and sifting through ALL the information out there. But there’s lots of support within the group and there’s a person who reviews everything before the response letters get mailed. Better yet, we get to choose the letters we answer which means I can focus on topics within my wheelhouse rather than, for instance, answer legal questions. There’s a countrywide network of volunteers with varied backgrounds and some have law degrees, others are research librarians, and there’s probably a zoologist who knows about that world’s longest snake.
If you’re interested in this project, PLSN offers a training session each month. They emphasized today that completing the training did NOT obligate us to be part of the program. We were free to check it out and see what we thought. (I’m gonna go for it.)
*Here’s a peek at the confusing and convoluted mail policies in Arkansas:
AS OF AUGUST 21, 2017, In an effort to reduce the introduction of contraband into our facilities, inmates will only receive two sheets of 8½ x 11 inches of copy paper, which will include a copy of the envelope and three pieces of the correspondence on the four-sides of the two sheets of copy paper. Only black and white copies will be made, and no cards, larger size paper, or anything else will be manipulated to fit on the copy paper. Additionally, any general correspondence that exceeds these limits will be treated as contraband. The inmate will have thirty (30) days to pay for return postage or it will be destroyed. Please write all letters in dark ink only (black or blue ink). Do not use pencils or yellow markers because it will reduce image quality. Note the examples below that illustrate copy quality when using ink versus pencil.
** new policy limits each letter to three questions
*** not a question from today