Nick Higgins emailed me the other day. He was a student in my class at what is now called the School of Information at the Pratt Institute in New York City, graduating in 2008. One of the joys of teaching is the continuing contact with students as they progress through their careers. In our profession that contact is especially gratifying.
The career vision of library professionals is almost always centered on the people they will serve. It is not the kind of bottom line–focused view you find in the private sector or many other fields. Sometimes their goal is simply to serve in one of the libraries and other institutions for which they were educated and trained, but just as often their aspirations are broader, carrying a conception of how the profession should change to meet deepening or newly discovered societal needs and resolve social issues. One such broader challenge has always been providing decent library service to the incarcerated.
Higgins started at the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) in 2006 as a full-time librarian trainee, rotating through different branches in the system every three months or so. After he graduated from Pratt, he became a librarian at the Grand Army Plaza Central Library at BPL, then moved on to head of BPL’s volunteer program.
In 2009, Higgins was invited to join the New York Public Library (NYPL) to lead its Correctional Services program. At the time, he had worked as a partner with NYPL for about three years.
The aim back then was to expand inmate library services across New York’s three library systems (BPL, NYPL, and the Queens Library), moving it out of a two-person office in Midtown Manhattan and establishing it as a core service citywide.
In 2013, Higgins was asked by BPL and the Revson Foundation to come back to Brooklyn to establish an outreach office that included services for people incarcerated throughout the city. BPL has since been operating satellite libraries and services alongside colleagues from NYPL at many of the city’s jails.
This year, BPL won a grant of $400,000 from the Knight Foundation to expand BPL’s TeleStory video visitation program for kids who want to visit and read stories with their incarcerated parents via tele-presence. Now 12 libraries in Brooklyn participate, and BPL will work with the Albany Public Library, NY, to set up similar services in the state capital.
Inspired by these efforts, the New York City Council provided funds to expand TeleStory to all three of New York City’s library systems.
Higgins first detailed this service vision in a paper in our class at Pratt. He reached out to me to tell me that the dream had been fulfilled and that the libraries were moving on to new challenges.
Other graduates who were in my course are following their objectives with almost as much passion as Higgins. They are an inspired lot, and they came to the school with that inspiration. What I love most about their energetically positive outlook for their libraries is that it is aimed at the users of the libraries, those who need the service, which is one of the qualities that sets librarianship apart. I wish it wasn’t so, but every one of these talented folks could have doubled their salary compensation in other fields. Yet they all seem to find that building effective services for those who use the library is as rewarding as building a bigger bank balance.
After the recent election, in which the nation celebrated success at accumulating wealth, I realize these comments will be written off as the platitudes of an idealist. So be it! My point is that Higgins continues to be impassioned about his work for others and the endless battles, to keep it growing and funded, against forces that have long since abandoned the incarcerated as unworthy of library service. He is living proof of the importance of the core values of librarianship.