BCRW @ 50

The Book-In and Barnard's Relationship to Rikers

The Barnard Book-In was a major organizing effort among Barnard students in supporting incarcerated women. First mentioned in a Barnard Bulletin article in 1969, the Book-In began as a project distributing books to children from underserved backgrounds in recognition of Barnard’s “responsibilities of her neighborhood citizenship.” By 1971, the Book-In expnded to providing books for those in prison. One article in the Barnard Bulletin titled “Book-In Expands to City Prisons” stated how Barnard librarian and Book-In Advisor Robert Palmer saw the importance of expanding the Book-In to supporting those inside the prison. He recognized this importance given the national events of the summer of ‘71, attention surrounding the conditions of prisons, and a New York Times article published earlier that year documenting the poor state of prison libraries. After forging a relationship with the New York Correctional Institution for Women at Rikers Island, the Book-In became a watershed organization at Barnard, and provided a concrete site for student engagement with issues related to incarceration.

Barnard’s relationship with Riker’s Island began in the Spring of 1972, as the Barnard Book-In, along with other volunteer librarians in the city, took on the project of weeding through their unorganized collection of books, a large majority of which were publishers’ rejected books, and which were not shelved or organized. They used funds to purchase books about Black experience, women’s studies, books in Spanish, and legal materials — subjects which the prison library lacked. In preparation for the project, students attended a panel sponsored by the Women’s Prison Association about breaking the cycle of prison re-entry, and the importance of creating job-training programs. By March of 1972, the Book-In had collected 1500 books for Rikers Island, and held trainings for officers and inmates in library techniques every Saturday. 

The Book-In project established a relationship between Barnard College and Rikers that went beyond the library. After the women at Rikers expressed an interest in reading and writing poetry, Palmer applied for a grant through the National Endowment of the Humanities to allow three students to work with the incarcerated women during the summer to help them develop skills in writing their own poetry. Barnard students participated in a basketball game with Rikers inmates three times between 1972 and 1974, starting what one Barnard basketball student described as the beginning of a new tradition.

It is unclear how and when the relationship between Barnard and Rikers dissolved, but by 1975, the Book-In advertised itself, once again, as a project for distributing books to school children, with no mention of providing books to incarcerated people. This change may have been due to Palmer’s disinvolvement with the project. In 1975, a Barnard Alumnae sought to donate her collection of feminist magazines to Barnard, but Palmer rejected the material. A Barnard Bulletin article that reported on this alleged that he expressed that “feminism was a fad and thus saw no reason to give the collection library space.” The Women’s Center took on the collection instead, adding to their already extensive feminist ephemera resource collection. Palmer’s disinvolvement did not seem to reflect the wider Barnard community, which continued to hold panels and events addressing racism and prisons. However, the Book-In did not appear to participate in such programs. Their last mention was in a 1976 Barnard Bulletin advertisement, with a stated goal in providing for school children, with no mention of their history or relationship to incarcerated women.

This page has paths: