Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Saur December 14, 2016

Information Needs in Prisons and Jails: A Discourse Analytic Approach

Debbie Rabina, Emily Drabinski and Laurin Paradise
From the journal Libri


According to the most recent statistics by the US Department of Justice (“Correctional Populations in the United States, 2014,” accessed September 25, 2016 at, more than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States. Without access to fully stocked and staffed libraries or a connection to the Internet, a broad swath of this population faces significant barriers to accessing a broad range of information sources. This study analyzes the problem of information access for incarcerated people. The dataset was drawn from five semesters of classroom engagement with the New York Public Library (NYPL) letter service, with 290 reference letters having been answered between September 2013 and May 2015. The method of discourse analysis was used to analyze the information needs of people in prisons and jails in the context of information worlds. Geographic distribution and user satisfaction are also analyzed. The research discussion produced the following insights into “life in the round” (Elfreda A. Chatman, “A Theory of Life in the Round,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (3):207–17) of people in prisons and jails that emerged from the analysis of the data: the continuing relevance of reference sources; the fact that prison produces anxiety about employment/re-entry; and the development of a mode of discourse through the letter service. The study concludes that information needs of the users often are created by the prison itself. The analysis tells us more about how information works in prisons and jails. Understanding the information needs of incarcerated people offers insight for librarians and libraries seeking to better serve incarcerated populations. Future research should address the information that incarcerated users have, not what those of us on the outside imagine they do not.


American Library Assocation. n.d. “Prisoners’ Right to Read.” American Library Association. Accessed September 22, 2014. .Search in Google Scholar

Bonczar, T. P. 2003. “Prevalence of Imprisonment in the U.S. Population, 1974–2001.” Bureau of Justice Statistics. Accessed September 25, 2016. .Search in Google Scholar

Chatman, Elfreda A. 1999. “A Theory of Life in the Round.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (3):207–17.Search in Google Scholar

Drabinski, Emily, and Debbie Rabina. 2015. “Reference Services to Incarcerated People, Part I: Themes Emerging from Answering Reference Questions from Prisons and Jails.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 55 (1):42–48.Search in Google Scholar

Ehrlich, Kate, and Debra Cash. 1999. “The Invisible World of Intermediaries: A Cautionary Tale.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8 (1/2):147–67.Search in Google Scholar

Greene, Daniel. 2016. “Discovering the Divide: Technology and Poverty in the New Economy.” International Journal of Communication 10:1212–31.Search in Google Scholar

Haider, Jutta, and David Bawden. 2007. “Conceptions of Information Poverty in LIS: A Discourse Analysis.” Journal of Documentation 63 (4):534–57.Search in Google Scholar

Hudson, Dave. 2012. “Unpacking ‘Information Inequality’: Toward a Critical Discourse of Global Justice in Library and Information Science.” Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 36 (3):69–87.Search in Google Scholar

Lehmann, Vibeke, and Joanne Locke. 2005. “Guidelines for Library Services to Prisoners.” IFLA Professional Reports 92:9–14.Search in Google Scholar

Lewis, David W. 1995. “Traditional Reference is Dead, Now Let’s Move on to Important Questions.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 21 (1):10–12.Search in Google Scholar

Nardi, Bonnie, and Yrjö Engeström. 1999. “A Web on the Wind: The Structure of Invisible Work.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8 (1):1–8.Search in Google Scholar

New York Reentry Education Network. n.d. “National Recidivism Rates with Access to Education.” Accessed September 25, 2016. .Search in Google Scholar

Othman, Roslina. 2004. “An Applied Ethnographic Method for Evaluating Retrieval Features.” The Electronic Library 22 (5):425–32.Search in Google Scholar

Rabina, Debbie, and Emily Drabinski. 2015. “Reference Services to Incarcerated People, Part II: Sources and Learning Outcomes.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 55 (2):123–31.Search in Google Scholar

Sullivan, Larry E. 2000. “The Least of Our Brethren: Library Services to Prisoners.” American Libraries Magazine 31 (5):56–58.Search in Google Scholar

Talja, Sanna. 1999. “Analyzing Qualitative Interview Data: The Discourse Analytic Method.” Library and Information Science Research 21 (4):459–77.Search in Google Scholar

Taylor, Robert S. 1968. “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” College and Research Libraries 29 (3):178–94.Search in Google Scholar

Wildemuth, Barbara M., and Carol L. Perryman. 2009. “Discourse Analysis.” In Applications of Social Research Methods to Questions in Information and Library Science, edited by Barbara Wildemuth, 320–28. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.Search in Google Scholar


Code Family: Directories

Quotations: 204

Codes (12):

Associations31 quotations
Broadcast directory information7 quotations
Business directory information56 quotations
Corporate information9 quotations
Educational directories18 quotations
Government directory info31 quotations
Housing directory info5 quotations
Legal directories, people information11 quotations
Periodical directory information14 quotations
Public figure directory information21 quotations
Social services directory info17 quotations

Code Family: Employment

Quotations: 96

Codes (2):

Employment opportunities44 quotations
Entrepreneurship61 quotations

Code Family: Entertainment

Quotations: 51

Codes (8):

Baseball2 quotations
Drawing1 quotation
Entertainment10 quotations
Fan club2 quotations
Music23 quotations
Puzzles, games, crosswords, etc.1 quotation
Song lyrics7 quotations
Sports6 quotations

Code Family: General reference

Quotations: 66

Codes (34):

3D printing2 quotations
Alphabet systems1 quotation
American Sign Language1 quotation
Biographical information3 quotations
Birthstones1 quotation
Bitcoin1 quotation
Black history5 quotations
Brain scanning1 quotation
Calendars1 quotation
Chinese calendar1 quotation
Chinese constitution1 quotation
Computers2 quotation
Cooking1 quotation
Document printing1 quotation
Dogs1 quotation
Friendship bracelets1 quotation
Gangs1 quotation
Geographic information8 quotations
History17 quotations
Holidays3 quotations
Hot dogs1 quotation
Kit cars1 quotation
Math1 quotation
Moon phases1 quotation
Name origins1 quotation
Nobel peace prize1 quotation
Numerical systems1 quotation
Plants2 quotations
Rainbows1 quotation
Rattlesnakes1 quotation
Secret societies2 quotations
Transcripts1 quotation
Translation services1 quotation
Weather information1 quotation

Code Family: Government information

Quotations: 74

Codes (7):

Census information1 quotation
Federal government42 quotations
Government information10 quotations
International government2 quotations
Local government5 quotations
Patents, trademarks, copyright8 quotations
State government17 quotations

Code Family: Housing information

Quotations: 27

Codes (6):

Halfway houses6 quotations
Housing information11 quotations
Public housing information1 quotations
Purchasing housing5 quotations
Shelters3 quotations
Transitional housing1 quotations

Code Family: Legal information

Quotations: 81

Codes (9):

Americans with Disabilities Act1 quotation
Family law4 quotations
Freedom of Information Law3 quotations
Gun laws and legislation1 quotation
Legal information48 quotations
Rights of incarcerated people22 quotations
Rights of the formerly incarcerated5 quotations
State law2 quotations
Stop and frisk1 quotation

Code Family: Nature

Quotations: 900

Codes (3):

Practical589 quotations
Recreational312 quotations
To be determined2 quotations

Code Family: Professional licenses

Quotations: 11

Codes (7):

Auction license1 quotation
Barber license1 quotations
Car dealer’s license2 quotations
Driver’s license2 quotations
Exterminator license1 quotation
Sanitation department2 quotations
Vendor’s license4 quotations

Code Family: Religion and spirituality

Quotations: 29

Codes (7):

Catholicism2 quotations
Hinduism1 quotations
New age5 quotations
Religion19 quotations
Religion and spirituality4 quotations
Satanism2 quotations
Tantric yoga1 quotations
Received: 2016-8-5
Accepted: 2016-9-27
Published Online: 2016-12-14
Published in Print: 2016-12-1

©2016 by De Gruyter