Project: Reference Letters to Incarcerated Persons
Description: This project is from INFO 652 Reference & Instruction with Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz in Spring 2020 (attended partially virtually). Over the course of the semester, I answered three reference letters from people incarcerated in the United States through NYPL Correctional Services, which provides direct reference assistance and resources.
Please note: the final report for this project was not required due to the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic, so only the letters are available below. I have gone into further depth in the methods section of this reflection as a way to help contextualize these letters.
Role: This project was completed individually.
Methods: The three reference letters I answered varied widely in content. The first asked for photographs and information regarding Goby fish. I made sure to include an image of each type of fish (or shrimp!) mentioned in the text I reproduced in the letter, along with their common and scientific names. The letter written mentioned they were doing research for an aquarium set-up, so after a first more scientific overview of the Goby species, I sought out resources written by aquarists. These articles provided information that I found to be more in line with the goals of the questions asked, such as fish tank requirements, feeding, breeding, and tank mates.
The second letter asked for information on the Mediterranean Sea, the least populous counties in the United States, and for paralegal book recommendations. This letter writer, which NYPL noted as a regular writer, asked for specific sources, which I did my best to use whenever possible. Regarding book recommendations, the writer asked for a field which I was not familiar with, so I had to first learn what they were asking for before seeking a recommendation. I included brief synopses of these books so the writer could ensure the books were what they needed. Finally, the letter writer asked for the “smallest 20 counties” in the United States. At the beginning of my research I initially interpreted this to mean population size, but quickly realized these counties in the US are extremely rural, and I wasn't sure by which metric the writer was defining smallest. With this in mind, I provided lists from census data based on three different metrics — land area, population, and population density — which gave a far more diverse set of counties and hopefully matched their criteria.
The third asked for as many photographs of specific extraterrestrial phenomena as possible. The letter writer shared a personal experience with extraterrestrials, mentioning they hadn't spoken about it to anyone since it happened 20 years ago. This touched me — the reasons behind the reference questions felt quite personal. I thought it was particularly important when answering to not knowingly provide false information or repeat conspiracy theories. With this in mind, I sought out images and stories shared directly by people that had encounters, rather than those shared widely by news outlets, searching internet forums and sources like the Mutual UFO Network. I also provided the stories behind the encounters for additional contextual information. To finish the letter, I sought out encounters reported in the same part of the world the letter writer's experience took place in.
Overall, I found providing the information in these questions to be very straight forward, taking care to note sources for further correspondence with letter writers and provide clear information and illustrations to the reader.
Rationale: Participating in NYPL's reference service to these patrons was among one of the most important experiences of my time at Pratt. Providing reference services to incarcerated persons in particular is not only a way to answer their questions in an information desert, but a means of connection and empowerment.