Basel – Berlin – London – Weimar – Amsterdam

Jeff Wall, Property Line
Jeff Wall, Property Line

Next week I’ll be heading back to Europe for the second half of my term as Senior Fellow at the Internationale Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie at the Bauhaus University Weimar. While in Europe, I’ll be giving talks at a few other universities: On April 7 I’m leading a workshop on “Infrastructural Fieldwork” at Meidalogue Basel; on May 3 I’ll be giving a lecture on “Infrastructural Tourism” at the Winchester School of Art; and on May 13 I’ll be leading an infrastructure master class and sharing a public lecture, on “Mud, Media and the Metropolis,” at the University of Amsterdam. While in Weimar, I’ll also help to lead a student workshop — involving students from Tom Ullrich’s, Gabriele Schabacher’s, and Claudia Tittel’s classes — on media logistics, and I’ll Skype with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago about urban archaeology. 


Infrastructural Intelligence Presentation @ Holcim Forum in Detroit

This past weekend I joined Paul Edwards, Etienne Turpin, Sara Dean, Rahul Mehrota, Clare Lyster, Elliott Montgomery, Chris Woebken, Jesse LaCavalier, and Jason Young at the Infrastructure Space forum, hosted by LaFargeHolcim, the global concrete company. Our not-so-little group — and the dozens of architects, engineers, planners, etc., who joined us — talked for two days about infrastructure at the metropolitan scale (while other groups focused on the planetary, regional, and architectural scales). Had lots of good chats, took lots of notes, made some new friends, etc, etc, etc. An unexpected highlight: on the way back to the airport I discovered that my seatmate was LaFargeHolcim’s Director of R&D. So, I asked him what’s hot in concrete these days. The answer: A LOT.

Here are my slides, and below is the text of my talk:


Intelligence and Emancipation

[2] For over three decades small-gauge filmmaker Jem Cohen has been exploring the visual and sonic poetry of the urban landscape – particularly its material and social infrastructures: its trains and bridges, its waste management systems and surveillance technologies, its museums and quotidian archives and music scenes. [3] While he continues the long tradition of the great “city symphony” filmmakers, his choice of subject matter has, in recent years, incited some concern.[1] In a 2005 interview he told The Reeler that the police who occasionally interrupt his shoots and confiscate his film ask him: “Don’t you realize that post-9/11, you can’t shoot infrastructure?” “I’m like, ‘Infrastructure’? Everything’s infrastructure.”[2]

[4] These days it might seem that everything is infrastructure because infrastructure seems to be everywhere – on the agenda in a tremendous variety of fields of professional and creative practice and scholarly inquiry. [5] Data visualizers and hip hop artists, literary scholars and medievalists, playwrights and film critics, management consultants and anthropologists have entered what has traditionally been the domain of civil engineers, city and federal governments, and global investment firms.[3] [6] And their conceptions of infrastructure have expanded to include everything from bridges and pipelines to technical protocols and social services and aesthetic forms. [7] We might attribute this growth of infrastructural “awareness” and allusion to a number of recent technological and cultural shifts: a sudden recognition that the Internet is a place made of countless material things – cables and data centers and rare earth minerals – along with lots of intellectual and political constructs, too; a dawning realization that our Amazonian consumptive appetites are dependent on similarly heavy logistical systems and exploitative labor practices; and a surrender to the reality of the Anthropocene and its precarious infrastructural, environmental, political, and ethical futures.

[8] This emergent infrastructural intelligence has spawned an explosion of infrastructural “literacy” and engagement projects that seek to “make visible the invisible,” to call out the unrecognized, to bore into the “black-boxed.” Grand Tours of nuclear infrastructures and key sites in telecom history have inspired many a recent Bildungsroman, in myriad mediated forms. [9] Apps and data visualizations, soundwalks and speculative design workshops, [10] DIY manuals and field guides, urban dashboards and participatory mappings, hackathons and infrastructural tourism – strategies employed by artists and activists and even some city governments and federal agencies – all seek to “raise awareness” among a broader public about infrastructure’s existence and its politics. They aim, further, to motivate non-specialist communities to contribute to infrastructure’s maintenance and improvement, to inspire citizen-consumers to advocate for more accessible and justly distributed resources, and perhaps even to “engineer” their own DIY networks.[4]

[11] The underlying assumption in many cases is that by making infrastructures visible or otherwise sense-able or experiential, those systems thereby become sensible, comprehensible – and perhaps even manipulable and hackable. Sensation translates into cognition, engagement, a sense of “ownership,” and, most ambitiously, technical competence and “emancipation.”[5] [12] De-obfuscating what Benjamin Bratton calls the “black stack” – that “opaque and unmappable,” overdetermined and inevitable assemblage of hardware, software, protocols, interfaces, urban topographies, and social formations that constitutes our infrastructures – [13] has the potential to generate what Tiziana Terranova terms the “red stack.”[6] This reappropriated stack is made by “hijacking” official and commercial technologies, constructing “new platforms through a crafty bricolage of existing technologies,” and enacting “new subjectivities through a détournement” of standard literacies.[7]

[14] These new techno-social practices and systems – these rogue infrastructures – promise to generate new forms of collectivity and emancipatory political economies.[8] Yet these “red” infrastructures need not necessarily be opposed to official systems. [15] Designers and developers have for years sought to glean insight from shadow economies and informal urbanism, from slums and favelas, hackers and pirates.[9] [16] Our newly enlightened and activated “red” collectives can potentially generate a form of infrastructural intelligence – ethnographic, grassroots – that offers an alternative, or a supplement, to “official” information sources and automatically-generated, sensor-harvested data. [17] The intellectual products of our infrastructurally enlightened, emancipated, engaged publics offer an epistemological complement to the intelligence coded into and harvested by our “smart” infrastructures. [18] Co-optation of the rogue might, and perhaps should, concern us, because it suggests the futility of resistance and autonomy. Or perhaps instead it represents a productive and empowering enlistment of infrastructure’s diverse, even marginal, publics – all those who constitute the consumer bases or commons it serves – in its design, activation, and evolution.

[19] The Infrastructural Commons

[20] Yet I think the heavy-handed symbolism of this color-coding – which is itself yet another means of representing infrastructural politics, of rendering it sense-able and thereby sensible – is itself rather obfuscatory. The “official” isn’t always black – opaque and oppressive – and the hacktivist and grassroots isn’t always a consciously revolutionary red, or a productive act of resistance. While the promotion of infrastructural intelligence and technical skills among infrastructure’s publics can cultivate invaluable literacies and forms of citizen engagement, [21] the “build-your-own” approach and its DIY ideology have limitations. [22] There are some cases, I’d say, in which the greatest good comes when we (and we could debate the scale at which that “we” should be conceived) are “in it together,” all committed to an infrastructural commons, all dedicated to the creation of inclusive and accessible and just systems and services that benefit from our collective intelligences and serve our collective needs.

[23] Knowledge infrastructures – libraries and archives, schools and universities, alternative learning venues, and civic data banks – are ideal examples of such collective resources, around which diverse communities form. And public libraries are a special case: they’re often the only free, and freely accessible, intellectual and social infrastructures available to the urban public at large.[10] [24] A few years ago I wrote about the rise of “little libraries” – guerilla, activist, pop-up collections on the urban margins – and wondered how they might relate to their bigger, bureaucratic, less nimble and experimental “institutional” counterparts. I concluded that many of those little libraries ultimately…

…underscore the great and unbridgeable difference between a phone booth fitted out with books and cushions and potted plants, on the one hand, and on the other, a fully functional and sustainable public library system, with the infrastructure and expertise to serve the diverse publics of a great [city or] nation. The little library movement is enabling us… to appreciate the distance that separates these ephemeral, marginal spaces and projects from the strong, stable public institutions that have been so central to our cities, and to our democracy.[11]

These little libraries and their digital counterparts – [25] file-sharing services, crowd-sourced digital collections, rogue archives – have served an invaluable intellectual role in raising critical questions about “the protocols of access, the ideals of knowledge and rules of intellectual property, the health of public institutions, the viability of public space and public life, and the definitions of civic values.”

[26] Yet, ultimately, I advocate for the commons writ large. I propose that our best course of action would be to blend formal and informal intelligences – to determine “how these ever more prevalent “provisional, opportunistic and guerilla” projects can complement and strengthen our more traditional institutions and the cities they serve.” Sure, we can let a thousand flowers – or home-grown infrastructures – bloom, but if we want them to cross-pollinate, and became robust and resilient through their genetic hybridization, we need to make sure they’re growing in the same garden, or that we develop effective and reliable means of exchange – of resources, knowledge, practices, and so forth.

[27] Our libraries demonstrate that infrastructures are simultaneously technical, architectural, social, epistemological, and ethical. They show how techno-spatial structures embody politics and values. They give us an opportunity, if we want it, to build systems and spaces that represent the ideals and social responsibilities that are central to our civic identities and subjectivities as democratic citizens. [28] Particularly as we move into an infrastructural age driven by proprietary data sets and impenetrable algorithms and quantitative solutionism, we need an intellectual infrastructure that embodies the values of the commons: open and linked data, open and interoperable platforms, open pedagogies, open design practices, open doors, open access.[12] [29] Such intellectual resources – which, it’s important to remember, are also social resources – are just as critical to urban resilience and rejuvenation as are storm walls and bike lanes and artisanal enclaves.

[30] Detroit, like many other cities, has recognized the arts – both in their formal, institutional manifestations and in their organically-generated, fringe forms – as a key ingredient in its own renewal. The recent “Redesigning Detroit” competition, dedicated to imagining new possibilities for the old Hudson’s Department Store, predictably generated proposals for outdoor markets and concert venues, business incubators, and live-work facilities for high-tech start-ups and artists.[13] Yet as plenty of precedents have demonstrated, “the Arts” occasionally alienate disenfranchised locals, spark gentrification, and lend themselves to appropriation and absorption into the official PR machine. Rather than advocating against the creation of infrastructures for creative and entrepreneurial development, [31] I’m advocating for more integration across institutions and entities in what has come to be known as the GLAM sector: galleries, libraries, archives, and museums, all of which have the potential to serve as mutually reinforcing cultural and social infrastructures. [32] Libraries and archives lend intellectual backing, informational resources, archival services, a commitment to public service, and an ethos of accessibility to more rarified cultural developments, and they serve as ideal venues for inclusive public forums and creative pedagogies: [33] design workshops and public prototyping for the urban commons. [34] Rarely do urban designers and developers put a library network at the center of their urban renewal proposals – but perhaps they should. 

[35] The Limits of Infrastructural Representation

Not only can the city’s disparate cultural and knowledge institutions serve as complementary social and intellectual infrastructures, but they can also work in tandem – drawing on their diverse collections and modes of address and engagement – to encourage experimental spatial pedagogies and promote infrastructural literacy as a public good. [36] Detroit has a history of inclusive, critical approaches to spatial intelligence. The Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute, directed from 1968 to 1972 by one-time Wayne State University professor William Bunge and local teenager Gwendolyn Warren, [37] sought to map the spatial knoweldges of the marginal, to chart racial and socio-economic barriers, to capture the insights and develop the skills of the “folk geographer.” They détourned conventional cartographic practices to map not what was, but what ought to be, as a means of promoting social justice.[14]

[38] Their diversity of surveying methodologies, mapping strategies and pedagogical approaches – from expeditions to free college courses – and the short lifespan of the experiment, reflect the challenges of comprehending and representing the infrastructures of injustice, or any complex, layered, over-determined urban infrastructure, for that matter. [39] Despite a long history of critique surrounding the master-plan and conventional cartography and other institutionalized, naturalized modes of spatial representation, today’s designers, developers, civic officials, and corporate contractors continue to pursue the comprehensive data visualization, the exhaustive network diagram, the completist map, the “seamlessly integrated” urban dashboard – the ideal means of representing their version of infrastructural intelligence. Yet the “black stack” and similarly opaque and unmappable structures and systems often defy easy representation.

[40] Theorist Alex Galloway suggests that we simply have yet to create “adequate visualizations” of our network culture and control society and the infrastructures that undergird them.[15] Or perhaps instead, representation itself is insufficient as a source of infrastructural intelligence. Architect John May proposes that pretty much all of our strategies for representing or mediating “infrastructural events,” [41] including particularly their moments of failure, are suspect:

“Real time” mass media; the practices of scenario modeling and accident investigation; [42] the managerial discourses of prevention, monitoring and response; public relations and engineering bravado as a politics of sanitation…[16]

…all, he says, ultimately “reify and reinforce the grand theater of modern functionalism.” They suggest that the failures of containment, the leaks and glitches and inefficiencies, are the exception rather than the norm.

[43] “So many of our unfolding catastrophes” – and even the mundane operations of infrastructural systems, I’d add – “are simply not amenable to the kinds of spectacular productions to which we have grown accustomed,” May says. Nor do they lend themselves to the de rigueur data visualization, widgetization and “dashboard”-ification. [44] May argues that the problem is scalar, both temporal and spatial: “the scale of their incidence renders them invisible to our methods of documentation”; invisibly small and slow phenomena accumulate over time into assemblages that are, “paradoxically, imperceptibly large.” Computationally-driven infrastructural operation, conversely, executes at a scale that is imperceptibly fast.

[45] These failures of representation may in part explain why many promoters of infrastructural intelligence resort not to representation, but to sensation, affect, process. They recognize that there is intelligence in experience and practice, even if we can’t always diagram it or map it or data-model it.[17] [46] The limits of infrastructural representation may be among its most illuminating dimensions: our failures to sketch out its contours show how the systems we create, as they intermingle and reinforce and reshape one another, often evolve and grow beyond our perception and conception, perhaps taking on an agency and intelligence of their own. [47] The same could be said of the infrastructures we create to cultivate knowledge: by offering libraries of resources and services, archives of documents and data, repertoires of learning sites and tools and strategies, our urban libraries and schools, exhibition spaces and labs together constitute an urban-scale scaffolding for illuminating experiences and practices. The infrastructural intelligence of the commons far exceeds anything we could presume to represent. [48]

[1] Jem Cohen, “The Politics of Documenting the Urban Landscape” Metrofocus (November 3, 2011):

[2] “Jem Cohen: Hard Days at the Office” The Reeler (July 5, 2015): (via Wayback Machine).

[3] Of course infrastructure has long been a topic of critical inquiry among economists, information scientists, development scholars, science and technology scholars, and others in the social sciences – but its appeal to humanists and artists has spread rapidly in the past decade. Consider, for instance, the spate of recent publications on literary infrastructure: Sophia Beal, Brazil Under Construction: Fiction and Public Works (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013); Jonathan Grossman, Charles Dickens’ Networks: Public Transport and the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); James Purdon, Modernist Informatics: Literature, Information, and the State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); and Michael Rubinstein, Public Works: Infrastructure, Irish Modernism, and the Postcolonial (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). See also the video for Kendrick Lamar’s Alright:

[4] Daphne Dragona, “Counter-Infrastructures: Critical Empowerment and Emancipation in a Networked World” Media-N: Journal of the New Media Caucus 10.3 (Fall 2014):; Alberto Corsín Jiménez, “The Right to Infrastructure: A Prototype for Open Source Urbanism” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32:2 (April 2014): 342-62; Sarah Kanouse, “Critical Day Trips: Tourism and Land-Based Practise” In Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics, Eds. Emily Eliza Scott and Kristen J. Swenson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015): 43-56; Shannon Mattern, “Infrastructural Tourism” Places (July 2013):; Adam Rothstein, “How to See Infrastructure: A Guide for Seven Billion Primates” Rhizome (July 2, 2015):

[5] Dragona.

[6] Benjamin Bratton, ‘The Black Stack” e-flux 53 (March 2014):; Metahaven, Black Transparency: The Right to Know in the Age of Mass Surveillance (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014).

[7] Tiziana Teranova, “Red Stack Attack! Algorithms, Capital, and the Automation of the Common” Effimera (February 11, 2014):

[8] See Jiménez, particularly his discussion (drawing on the work of Chris Kelty) of how open-source infrastructures both offer a platform for the expression of new ideas and make possible a new kind of social order, new “recursive publics.”

[9] Karen Bakker, “Splintered Urbanisms: Water, Urban Infrastructure, and the Modern Social Imaginary,” in ed. Matthew Gandy, Urban Constellations (Berlin: Verlag GmbH 2011), 62-64.

[9] Rahul Mehrotra, “Negotiating the Static and Kinetic Cities: The Emergent Urbanism of Mumbai,” in ed. Andreas Huyssen, Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 205-18; the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s now-defunct S.L.U.M. Lab.

[10] See Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure” Places (June 2014):

[11] Shannon Mattern, “Marginalia: Little Libraries on the Urban Margins” Places (May 2012):

[12] See Shannon Mattern, “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure” Places (November 2013):; Etienne Turpin, “Surviving the Laboratory City: GeoSocial Information, Data Policies and the Next 1 Billion Users,” “Data Associations in Global Law an Policy” Workshop, University of New South Wales, Sydney, December 11, 2015:

[13] See

[14] Catherine D’Ignazio, “The Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute: A Case Study in Civic Mapping” MIT Center for Civic Media Blog (August 7, 2013):; Dee Morris and Stephen Voyce, “William Bunge, the DGEI, & Radical Cartography” jacket 2 (March 20, 2015):

[15] Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Malden, MA: Polity, 2012): 91; See also Shannon Mattern, “Interfacing Urban Intelligence” Places (April 2014):

[16] John May, “Infrastructuralism: The Pathology of Negative Externalities” Quaderns 262 (2011):

[17] See Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space | Politics | Affect (New York: Routledge, 2008).


Equipment for Redemptive Living


Last summer the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, which offers circulating library services to five city jails and creates resources to help incarcerated people upon re-entry, approached Parsons with a request: for years, they had been making do with jury-rigged equipment — dysfunctional carts handed down from the correctional facilities’ cafeterias or maintenance staffs, cardboard boxes mended with utility tape, etc. They asked if Parsons could help them design new book carts, and Dean Brian McGrath jumped at the opportunity. He asked furniture designer Joel Stoehr to dedicate a fall design-build course to the carts, and enlisted me to help.

Several of us joined the Correctional Services staff last summer to assist with library service at Rikers Island and the Metropolitan Correctional Center. What an illuminating, moving experience — one that prepared us to appreciate the tremendous value these services offer, the incredible dedication of the staff, and the significant challenges they face — and, remarkably, surmount — in providing professional library service to our most marginalized populations. Last fall Joel’s class drew students from all across Parsons; they consulted regularly throughout the semester with the library staff, and I stopped by periodically, too. By the end of the semester, the students had not only designed, but also constructed brand-new, bespoke library carts — with powder-coated steel frames and maple plywood shelves — that are now in operation in New York’s correctional facilities.

The final review for carts designed for the New York Public Library for use at Rikers Jail by students at Parsons under the supervision of Joel Stoehr. Represenatives from the Library and a selection of professors from Parsons were invited to suggest any final changes before delivery at the end of the month to Rikers.

We’re working to produce a book to document and celebrate the process (actually, Joel and a tremendously talented Parsons student designer have done the bulk of the work!). When that book comes to life, I’ll of course post about it here. For now, I thought I’d share the essay I wrote for the book; it’ll be joined by essays from Joel and one of the students:


With two stuffed totes looped over her shoulders, she adeptly maneuvers a wheeled suitcase through the security gate. Once inside, she drags her freight through a maze of hallways toward a closet lined with boxes. Surveying the contents of those boxes, she swaps out some of the wares with fresh additions from her totes and suitcase, then hoists the boxes onto an industrial cart that’s seen better days. With her payload carefully balanced – she’s done this many times before – she makes sure to grab her clipboard, then trundles out into the hallway, mindful of the cart’s temperamental front wheel. Here, she’s joined by a security officer, and together they make their way to an elevator. On one of the upper floors, they muscle the cart over uneven floor tiles and set up shop in a stairwell, positioning the cart so as not to impede circulation, and arranging the boxes on stairs to facilitate browsing. Patrons are then led in two or three at a time. They hungrily yet carefully dig through the boxes, make their choices, and sometimes lodge special requests for materials that will be delivered on a subsequent visit. Our keeper-of-boxes notes her patrons’ selections on the clipboard – and once all are served, she moves on to another stairwell in another house.

Library service in New York City’s correctional facilities is not a high-tech affair. While public libraries across the nation are reinvigorating and networking themselves through the integration of sophisticated design labs and customer-service apps and linked data initiatives, the public libraries in our jails and penitentiaries are significantly more lo-fi – yet no less vibrant and vital. Here, trained librarians have marshaled clipboards and hand-me-down carts, donated books and cardboard boxes to offer incarcerated individuals access to information and entertainment – to extend the basic services of this revered democratic institution to one of society’s most marginalized publics.

Borrowing a phrase from literary critic Kenneth Burke, we can say that these analog accouterments function here, in these less-than-ideal settings, as nothing less than “equipment for living.” Burke used the phrase to explain the purpose of literature, which, he said, arms us “to confront perplexities and risk,” and has direct bearing “upon matters of welfare.”[i] For incarcerated populations, reading materials offer a means to pass the time and imaginatively escape their restrictive environments – to build a “bridge to the free world…with a broader horizon,” as prison educator Austin MacCormick put it in 1950.[ii] They also, Megan Sweeney argues, help incarcerated people “come to terms with their pasts, contextualize their experiences in relation to larger frameworks, and gain inspiration from others as they learn to imagine – and create – new ways of being in the world.”[iii] Correctional services librarians are attuned to the distinctive challenges and needs of this population, many of whom struggle with substance abuse and mental illness and socio-economic disadvantages, who have relatively low levels of education, and who represent a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds.[iv] And librarians can develop their collections, and connect individual patrons to particular books, that address, and aim to redress, these obstacles and injustices.

More concretely, prison libraries – which encompass the collection, the staff, and the programs they organize for their patrons – help to promote financial literacy and cultivate job-seeking skills and other competencies and sensibilities that ease patrons’ eventual re-entry into their communities. They can connect patrons with support services, like local Alcoholics Anonymous chapters or English as a Second Language or GED classes; and prepare them to find a home and get a driver’s license.[v] The New York Public Library publishes an annual Connections re-entry handbook (available in both English and Spanish) that lists precisely these kinds of resources. Perhaps the general public doesn’t always appreciate the value of providing such services to formerly incarcerated people, but by helping them navigate this tricky transition, library services have the potential to reduce recidivism, which both “saves taxpayers money in the long run” and makes our communities safer.[vi] “From a community safety perspective, helping people [who are or had been in prison] make positive changes is important,” argues Daniel Marcou, a correctional librarian in Hennepin County, MN. [vii] And once they re-enter their communities, formerly incarcerated people can turn to their local public libraries to serve as bastions of that hard-won change. As Brendan Dowling explains,

Libraries …serve as a natural place for ex-offenders to transition back into their communities… Libraries are public buildings that are not threatening to them, unlike other government institutions… At the library, ex-offenders find a neutral and anonymous atmosphere in which to go about the business of restructuring their lives.

Inside the correctional facility, however, that transitional “place” rarely commands a dedicated building, or even a room. For the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services, the library exists where the cart resides. A stairwell, a cafeteria, a hallway: each becomes a library when the book cart wheels in. As librarian Brenda Vogel explains, “The book cart is the library totem to a prisoner… This service must not be merely a token, it is representative of the library and in its own form should be of the same quality and have the integrity of the service offered in the library.”[viii] That’s a tall order when librarians are forced to make do with equipment handed down from the prison cafeteria or maintenance staff, when “we match the institutional food carts,” as one librarian explained to me. “We were used to MacGuyvering things” – to relying on the Department of Corrections (DOC) for equipment and access, and then attempting to re-align our professional practice with their way of doing things.

A Fall 2015 partnership with Parsons School of Constructed Environments transformed those MacGuyvers into furniture and service designers, and afforded them an unprecedented degree of freedom and control over their work patterns, conditions, and environments. By aligning the librarians’ experience and expertise in social and informational services, with Parsons students’ experience and expertise in translating clients’ needs into constructed environments, the collaborators produced new, more functional and hospitable “equipment for living” that has the potential to empower both librarians and their patrons. In those often drably analog institutional structures – with their steel-and-cinder-block surfaces, harsh fluorescent lighting, and impersonal acoustics – Correctional Services’ new, custom-designed library carts function as heterotopias, other-spaces or temporary utopian oases, on wheels. Their “glowing” maple plywood shelves “bring sunlight” to drab corners, a group of librarians rhapsodized.

When a new cart made its debut at Rikers Island, one patron asked incredulously, “You did this for us?” The 18- to 21-year-old women on Rikers responded with particular enthusiasm, one librarian reported. “It’s definitely a conversation piece.” Many patrons have asked the librarians about the design process, perhaps signaling a burgeoning interest in design – one that the librarians can then encourage by recommending relevant resources within their collections. And word-of-mouth has distributed news of the carts’ arrival to other houses that aren’t currently reached by NYPL Correctional Services, prompting requests for expanded service.[ix] Those requests are often filtered through the corrections officers, who have for years observed the library staff’s resourcefulness and consistency, and who now express (even if tacitly) greater appreciation for the librarians’ increased autonomy and professionalism. The new carts “raise our profile within the DOC,” the librarians told me.

Before the new carts’ arrival, the librarians were bound by the protocols and practices dictated by their equipment. The battered boxes and wobbly wheels determined how they did their jobs and served their patrons. In order to maximize collection capacity and ensure its secure transit across uneven floors and treacherous thresholds, the librarians boxed up their books by size, packing books of similar dimensions into the same box, and stacked them with logistical efficiency. Because logistics in the environment were so precarious, logistical management thus became a primary operative logic informing their work. Now, with these custom-designed carts – with shelves designed specifically to store and display books, and with greatly enhanced stability and maneuverability – the librarians can organize their collections in ways that are intelligible and accessible to patrons: with shelves dedicated to particular genres, popular fiction displayed on the front, and newspapers on top. Patrons can circulate around the cart, exploring the full extent of the collection. This new equipment for service thus furnishes new equipment for exploring and thinking – and, by extension, living.

The librarians’ lives have changed markedly, too. They welcome a respite from the repeated hoisting of boxes and wrestling with obstinate carts. “We’re now on offense, not defense,” one librarian reported, referring not only to their long battle with borrowed equipment, but also their ongoing struggle with the larger institutional structures within which they work. This new equipment steels them to face those challenges in pursuit of their broader mission: the new carts “elevate the service,” allowing the librarians to roll in and proudly proclaim, “We are the New York Public Library. “We now have a mobile library” that can facilitate and “showcase the work we do.” The staff now more confidently make their claim that Correctional Services, long overshadowed by more prominent brick-and-mortar branches, is the “89th branch of the NYPL” – one deserving of adequate recognition and material support. The librarians now have equipment that allows them to “represent the NYPL at full capacity” – “of the same quality and… integrity of service offered” in the other branches, as Vogel advocates – but in more compact, more nimble fashion. Those “glowing” carts of maple and steel equip the Correctional Services staff to live up to its full capacity – to celebrate the professional service they have always provided, despite their limited resources – and to thereby equip their patrons, many searching for renewal, to live richer, redeemed lives.


[i] Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,”  Philosophy of the Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action,  3rd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973): 293-304.

[ii] Quoted on Vibeke Lehmann, “Challenges and Accomplishments in U.S. Prison Libraries” Library Trends 59:3 (Winter 2011): 492.

[iii] Megan Sweeney, “Reading and Reckoning in a Women’s Prison,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 50:3 (Fall 2008): 304.

[iv] See Lehmann 2011: 503.

[v] See Brendan Dowling, “Public Libraries and the Ex-Offender” Public Libraries 46:6 (November/December 2007): 44-8.

[vi] Lehmann, “Planning And Implementing Prison Libraries: Strategies And Resources” IFLA Journal 29:4 (2003): 301-7; Lehmann 2011.

[vii] Stephen M. Lilienthal, “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” Library Journal (February 4, 2013):

[viii] Brenda Vogel, The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: Scarecrow Press, 2009): 39.

[ix] Because of limited staff, time, and supplies, the Correctional Services staff prioritizes particular houses in the correctional facilities; they prioritize houses with “special populations,” including those with mental health disorders or those under protective custody, who have fewer opportunities to connect with the outside world.