Where do you go to get help? A branch library system is an ideal physical infrastructure of aid: in New York City, 209 branches are dispersed throughout the city, yet central to neighborhoods’ identities; they convey government’s power, but have an overwhelmingly positive public profile. (They are, significantly, not police stations.) In the last 15 years, librarians and library systems throughout the country have embraced a commitment to equity of access — not only to the materials contained by the library’s physical building, but to civic participation and community inclusion more broadly. Increasingly, public libraries offer a place to work towards citizenship or a GED; register to vote or obtain identification; learn English or how to start businesses; experience or create art; and alleviate loneliness. Most importantly, public libraries are where people already go for help they can’t find elsewhere, or when they don’t know where to start. To a librarian, no question is off limits — even, from people returning home from prison: “How can I rebuild my life?”
Librarians at a 12 Brooklyn Public Library branches already field this question. Thanks to the TeleStory program, which reconnects people separated by incarceration via video visits, they’ve cultivated relationships with dozens of formerly incarcerated people and their families. Now, the library hopes to bring together the insights those relationships generate with an unparalleled network of community contact. BPL hopes library-based reentry programs could counteract the trauma of prison and its aftershocks: Nearly all of Brooklyn’s 2.6 million residents live within a half mile of a BPL branch, where recently incarcerated library patrons could connect to helpful service-providers as they search for housing, jobs, legal help, or medical care. But in the wake of trauma, contact needs a subtle touch, and poses a complex design problem. The architecture of the library can encourage help-seeking, or hinder it; the interaction between a librarian and a recently incarcerated person can build trust, or break it. So starting in Fall 2018, the Parsons Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Lab (DESIS Lab) will help BPL move through a service design process to hone in on moments of potential and missed opportunities. Ethnographers will gather the voices of library patrons and staff; journey maps and system blueprints will distill how people move through the spaces of the branches and the systems of services that characterize reentry. Before setting out on the process together, Interim Outreach Services Director Eva Raison and Televisit Services Coordinator Michael Carey spoke with Lara Penin and Eduardo Staszowski, co-founder and director of DESIS Lab, and design ethnographer John Bruce about how intersection becomes connection, and how information becomes power.
Why is the Brooklyn Public Library getting involved with reentry programming?
There are a number of library programs that already work with incarcerated populations, mainly through Outreach Services.
We provide a book service in a lot of the facilities of Rikers on a weekly basis, in the Brooklyn Detention Complex, and on the Vernon C. Bain jail barge, in the Bronx, as well. We also have a “Daddy and Me” family literacy program, which was developed in partnership with our children’s librarians. And then there’s TeleStory. So this reentry project is the next step in a continuation of services.
We’d been thinking not only about how to strengthen those specific pieces of programming but also how to create a system-wide strategy to meet the needs of the reentry population. I come from a background of working in reentry; the role of the library, particularly the neighborhood branch library, as a community anchor is an incredibly rich resource to work with in terms of designing programming.
How does the Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability (DESIS) Lab fit in?
DESIS Lab is an action research laboratory based at the New School, working at the intersection of design, management, and social theory to advance the practice and discourse of design-led social innovation, and to foster more equitable and sustainable cities. We usually partner with public interest organizations like the Brooklyn Public Library to co-design new approaches to better serve their communities.
I used to be the director of a reentry educational organization called the College Initiative, which helped formerly incarcerated people enroll and succeed in college. Lara and Eduardo and one of their students at DESIS Lab at the time helped us as students participating in the College Initiative designed a mentorship program. The model they came up with is the one that the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice is now using in their Jails to Jobs program.
One of the things in that process that I thought was incredibly valuable and that I would like to see in the work we’re about to do was the multi-level approach. So much was unearthed in that design process that gave us an advocacy and policy agenda as an organization. This time, I’m excited to find out: What institutional barriers can the design process identify, and how can we, as an organization, turn that into an agenda on behalf of the patrons using our programs?
Working with DESIS Lab on a service design process feels like a good next step for us in developing the relationships that we’ve already been building with families that are affected by incarceration. One of the reasons we want to work with DESIS is to make sure that future programming incorporates the voices of the participants, and that it is very much informed by, and co-designed with, the families who would be participating.
What are the goals of the service design process in this context?
Service design is in essence a human-centered, participatory design approach that creates opportunities for people to meaningfully participate in the creation of services to improve their lives. In our model, co-designing captures both explicit and implicit forms of knowledge of the people that are involved in delivering or receiving a service. There are many industries that make use of this method, but at the DESIS Lab we’re really interested in the social impact aspect of service design — not only social services but the social aspects of all services and how they impact society in general.
The goal is to understand the people who are involved in a service, and to make services more accessible, transparent, and relevant — to all members of the public, but especially among groups which have historically been marginalized. That means engaging the person receiving the service: understanding that person as a human being at a certain point in a specific journey through time, through different interfaces and experiences. But the “human-centered” approach doesn’t stop at the receiving end of the service. It also engages the people representing the organization delivering the service — in this case, librarians and library staff.
We try to unearth a lot of subjective knowledge that people who are working in delivering services already have, including people who are working in logistics and the distribution of knowledge, to connect the dots behind the front line.
One of the very important stakeholders in this co-design process is the library staff. The library’s role and function in the community is changing, and has changed dramatically. It’s really important to recognize that process is happening.
What’s the background of that shift in libraries’ missions?
Greater inclusion has been a focus of library services for a long time. Traditionally library systems have looked for ways to improve access and reduce barriers to the brick-and-mortar, physical space of a library. Interventions might include books by mail, for people who are homebound, or satellite libraries, whether bookmobiles or the jail libraries that we do. But with the founding of Outreach Services at BPL in 2014, we wanted to look at inclusion more broadly.
The vision of a library is a very open system, where people can have free access to information, technology, and books. But if we’re looking at inequality and true inclusion, sometimes the services have to change to better fit the population. It’s about designing something that is directly responding to a community need.
When we started, there were three main buckets of Outreach Services, that each focused on particular populations. I was the Coordinator of Immigrant Services; we focused on creating meaningful access to all library services for people who have limited English proficiency, and we engaged with communities and partners to develop programming that connected people to some services that don’t traditionally happen in a library. With the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, we placed lawyers in libraries to provide free immigration legal services. That’s where BPL worked with DESIS before.
Another bucket was Transitional Services, which was focused on people experiencing homelessness and people touched by the justice system. Homelessness is a major issue in New York City, and a lot of people who come into the libraries are living in shelters, or may be street homeless. They come because it’s a safe space, where nobody will bother them and they can sit and read. So we partnered with Breaking Ground to place social workers in the libraries. The last part of Outreach Services is Services for Older Adults.
We’re in the middle of a shift toward looking at libraries as embedded in communities, as being part of the ecosystem. In the last couple years, throughout the profession, there’s been more of an emphasis on looking at diversity, equity, and the ways that libraries can play a role in dismantling oppression. That opens a space for us to be more explicit about what we’re trying to do. Libraries are one of the foundational institutions of a democracy. The BPL believes that libraries should be community leaders and conveners, so our Strategic Plan emphasizes very purposeful community engagement.
There’s a huge opportunity in this project, beyond designing good programming for the reentry population, to figure out how the vision Eva’s just articulated actually works at the ground level.
That’s how we perceive the work we do with service design as well — it goes beyond the specific program. Services are the entry points for ongoing, larger changes. In this project we’re thinking about what role the library can play in and how libraries can negotiate their existence across larger policy issues by building networks and partnerships with other organizations. We’re not here simply on a problem-solving mission, because it’s systemic, it’s multi-scale, it’s multi-level. Hopefully this project touches on different issues, and maybe our output will include suggestions for proposals that can be enacted over a longer period of time.
Can you describe what the design process will look like?
The typical tools of service design are journey maps and service blueprints, which are essentially timelines enriched with qualitative data about users, staff, and the organization. The purpose is to understand what happens in a service, what causal relationships exist between people and the system, what pain points exist, and how the processes can be improved.
Part of our theory of work is to acknowledge that there are some blind spots in this process. It’s a humble approach to design. We insert ourselves as a group of researchers to facilitate the exchange of knowledge between participants, to bridge information gaps and find ways of sharing needed information more effectively, but we are newcomers in this space. We have had some experience working with reentry services in the past, but the families and the libraries and the non-profits are the experts. We’re trying to unearth the knowledge that already exists in this community, and to facilitate the direction that the community as a whole wants to move forward.
Of course it’s never a linear thing; we’re not only trying to map out things mechanically but trying to understand culturally, socially, economically, everything about where a given participant is coming from. They’re people, so things are kind of messy and complex. Enter ethnography.
I’ll be conducting the fieldwork for this project with filmmaker Pawel Wojtasik. We’ll be spending time with stakeholders, forming relationships with them and recording video and audio as they interact with systems of incarceration and reentry.
Ethnographic practices come out of anthropology, but unlike typical social science approaches, design ethnography allows for open-ended, immersive, and collaborative experiences with interlocutors. We’re not going into the field with a strict agenda, a set of interview questions, or a hypothesis that we’re asked to prove or disprove. It’s not like, “OK, today we have 90 minutes and we’re going to follow somebody who goes through the system or through the process of utilizing services.” That becomes stilted quickly. But rather we’re allowing for behaviors, motivations, needs, desires, patterns, and propensities to emerge and evolve as these issues bubble up.
It’s a bit of a trick to not be a cameraperson; we use very small, efficient, unobtrusive gear to minimize the presence of the technology, so that we can be humans rather than technical operators or clinical researchers. It requires trust and flexible time to do this kind of work. We generate a great deal of media, and it can take many forms, so parsing the media and sifting through it becomes a big part of the process. Sometimes we do drive the media to look like more complete short films, but we also play with it; for instance, when deconstructed it can become fodder for a scenario workshop. We also synthesize findings from the fieldwork to design inquiry questions that inform other workshop activities, like ecosystem mapping, journey mapping, or other service blueprint investigations.
Findings and media generated through the video ethnographic research process will contribute to a multi-stakeholder scenario workshop that will engage library staff and patrons. In the studio “Design for Living and Dying,” led by Bruce and Patricia Beirne, students of the Parsons Transdisciplinary Design program engaged patients, their families and friends, doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, hospice volunteers, and others in similar workshops.
In the scenario workshop, participants viewed a video of a short scene, which was also deconstructed and enlarged in a series of still images, printed dialog, and spatial plans, and presented on a large table as moveable components. Tools like the “Wheel of Reasoning” helped stakeholders to analyze complex interactions, and to discuss moments in the scene that emerge as important to them, whether positive or negative, challenging or affirming. Participants also proposed alternatives to the scene based on possible changes to language, physical elements, relational dynamics, roles, and responsibilities.
Photos courtesy of John Bruce.
The work in the field and the work of synthesizing the media are design processes that then flow into other stages. We analyze the findings, turning them into insights and design principles addressing physical and emotional space, as well as propensities, relationships, and language.
There are different ways to play with those media outputs, to overlap them with more technical tools. If you start positioning the stories that the design ethnography process generates in a journey map or a service blueprint, you may realize where the friction is. You may start seeing the contradictions, the various truths of the system that different people experience based on whether they are engaging with day-by-day operations and service delivery, or with inputs and outcomes.
The first phase of this project is aimed at mapping and understanding the key stakeholders, relationships, and leverage points that make up the system of reentry, and its intersection with BPL’s programs and services. That mapping should then inform an exploratory workshop aimed at generating a common understanding of the problems and prompting participants to start thinking about future investments and strategic decisions moving forward. In the second phase, we will be thinking about design more concretely through prototyping and piloting new services.
In an earlier collaboration with the city’s three public library systems, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and Citi Community Development, a DESIS Lab project sought to connect citizenship programming with financial empowerment services within libraries. Parsons students, stakeholders, and designers moved through discovery, co-design, prototyping, and piloting stages together, developing ideas for resources and services within libraries that could help people who are preparing to apply for citizenship to achieve greater financial stability.
Thematic analysis, journey and stakeholder maps, and a service blueprint broke down the systems that existed already in the discovery phase.
From concept to prototype: one team proposed a “New Americans Kiosk,” where people seeking citizenship and immigration services could be screened for financial needs as well.
Image courtesy of Parsons DESIS Lab and Parsons Transdisciplinary Design Graduate Program
If you ask someone who is transitioning out of incarceration back into the community, “How did you get to this point, and what can we do for you?” their answer could go 20 years back in time and 20 years into the future. How do define the purview of this specific project?
In some ways it’s sort of simple to identify needs because all you’ve got to do is create a space where people feel safe and they can talk, and then the library is a locus where we can bring in partner agencies to meet those immediate needs.
We’re not talking about attracting people to a service, we’re talking about serving people who are already in our libraries, who are already in our communities. We have 58 libraries; we’re in every neighborhood in Brooklyn. The needs of each of those neighborhoods could be quite different, and the use of those libraries could be quite different. For example, Telestory was placed purposefully in 12 neighborhoods that have high incarceration rates.
We’ve learned a lot from the work we’ve done with TeleStory. We’ve focused in on a couple of branches in particular — Brownsville, Bedford, and Bushwick — to experiment with providing supports to the families that are using televisits, 90 or 95 percent of whom are women who are visiting incarcerated men — fathers — with children. We’ve done these events, where we invite the families that have been using the program to come in and have a big dinner together. We have activities for the kids, and then we invite the caregivers to speak about their experience of what it’s like to have a family member incarcerated, what their expectations are, what their fears are, what resources they’ve connected with already, what resources they need, what their support looks like. From the feedback we’ve gotten from those meetings, the library is a big support for a lot of those families. They’re really not prepared to navigate the reentry system. They’re not aware of what’s available, what resources are out there. So that’s already giving us some ideas about what role the library can play. If we’re being identified by families as the primary resource for information, that’s really important.
The first time, we asked the families, “What would you like to do with the next meeting?” And they were really interested in getting connected with legal resources. They weren’t sure what their rights were in dealing with a public defender: Could they step in to advocate for a loved one with the public defender? How do they get a new public defender? What are their rights for in-person visits? If they’ve been banned from in-person visiting how do they get reinstated? So the next meeting we invited someone from Bronx Defenders to come in. They were still asking questions when the library closed, at 8pm — they were having a discussion out on the street.
As part of Outreach Services’ support to the branches that are running TeleStory, we go to the branches and speak with the staff about what patrons say they need. For instance, at the Bedford branch, which is really close to the Atlantic Armory where a lot of folks coming out of the criminal justice system find transitional shelter, the branch staff get all sorts of really specific reentry questions. It’s one of the biggest shelters in the city, and a lot of people come in from that shelter during the day to use the library. So, we’ve been sitting down and talking to the staff there about the sort of questions that are being asked. And we’ve been talking about not only providing staff with training, but providing resources that can hone in on connecting people to the right supports.
I think of the moment that a person comes into a library; we’re still focusing on that interaction. A lot of library services are led by the patrons asking the questions. What we’re trying to emphasize is the philosophy of whole-person librarianship, which means dealing with the immediate information request but also seeing people as whole people, knowing that there might be other information they’re not asking for directly that might be really useful, making sure people know how to use libraries for their own goals. The idea is that a relationship with a librarian is a form of reference.
It sounds like a lot of the co-design process that DESIS is describing is happening informally within the library staff and users. What’s the benefit of involving professional designers?
That’s true. I think the specific benefit is precisely the formality the designers bring — the frame of programmatic scaleability and sustainability, in particular. They are also able to map out what we might only be peripherally aware of in terms of the experience patrons have of the library as an institution. And I think DESIS Lab’s model of co-design fits well with the library’s culture.
What sorts of concrete resources or changes to the space of the library could this collaboration produce?
We’re talking about an approach that would not mean taking a librarian off the desk for two hours to go and sit down with a patron and basically be their case manager. That’s one limit to the program. But maybe a screening tool for library staff — there are all sorts of social service databases out there that staff members could search based on the type of need that a patron is expressing, combined with what we know about meeting that need, to find out what connection to services or support we can make. One idea that’s been very resonant for a lot of the branch staff is this idea of having reentry navigators: people who have firsthand experience going through the criminal justice system who would be available at set hours at the library. So instead of saying, “I don’t know how to help you,” staff can say, “We have a reentry navigator who’s here on Tuesday, would you like to reserve a slot then?”
It also involves creating different kinds of spaces. One of the questions we’ve been asking ourselves is, what can the physical space in the branch do to create a psychologically welcoming environment for people? There is a traditional model of having a desk that someone goes to. In some ways that promotes access, because it’s something people know to expect at the library. And anybody could go up and ask a question; it’s not like, “If you have this problem, go over to that room.”
With the immigrant population we have “New American Corners” which are a physical space. But we’re not going to have the “Formerly Incarcerated Corner.” It requires a really different approach. We got an interesting idea from our friends over at the Mayor’s office. What was the name they came up with?
The Family Help Desk.
Everyone’s part of a family, so it’s as generic as it can possibly be. But potentially it could work.
We’re also staying open to other kinds of services, like family support events, or even opening up the space to the community to have different kinds of events as the need arises. When Saheed Vassell was killed in Crown Heights, the community approached the library not only to make photocopies, but also to have a healing event for the community and the family in the library.
How will the library navigate making programs and spaces available to specific segments of the public that need it, versus opening services and spaces to the entire public?
We have these conversations a lot within the library.
Using TeleStory as an example, it’s really interesting how the conversations around that shifted. Originally there were a lot of people asking, “Why is the library the right venue for this?”
But if you look at the ecosystem that TeleStory exists in — the for-profit model and efforts by the private video visitation industry to shut down access to in-person visits so that they have a monopoly on contact — that shifts the role of the library. That changes the conversations we have internally about it. The library is a public institution that’s providing this free service that might otherwise only exist in a destructive, damaging way.
It’s important also to talk about not just the quantitative need — how many people need a given thing — but the qualitative need. What’s the depth of the need of someone who’s coming out of the state prison system and is living in a shelter in a neighborhood?
Because the library is open to everyone, everyone is welcome here, but if you want to be serious about equity, then there have to be some services that address specific inequities. It doesn’t mean we stop serving everyone, but equity is not about everybody getting the same thing.
Sometimes it’s sort of figuring out: Why not do it here? For immigration legal services, there was a question of why that would happen at the library. But why not, if we can use the rooms as a confidential space?
Then there’s the question: What are we in the business of? When you’re in the business of information, and you’re in the business of education, of serving everyone from babies through their whole lifespan, that’s really broad. This is all part of what people are looking to the library for.