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Collaboration Changes the Lives of the Incarcerated

by on April 22, 2016

What happens when you combine thirteen students, a librarian, and a furniture design professor and put them in jail? Creativity, collaboration, and design. That’s exactly the formula for success that New York Public Library’s Correction Services Managing Librarian, Sarah Ball, looked for when she contacted the Parsons School of Design. She was looking for a way to update the makeshift carts NYPL was using at Rikers Island and the Manhattan Correctional Facility.

Parsons Dean Brian McGrath connected her to faculty member, Joel Stoehr, Assistant Professor of Modeling Technology, and thirteen architecture, product design, interior design, and lighting design students went to work. Vision and function soon merged into design. The students were challenged to improve the accessibility of NYPL’s converted kitchen-library carts, transforming them into something that would increase interest and also maximize book displays. “In thinking about this object, we tried to strike a balance between utility and aesthetics,” Parsons student Mikhail Volf said. “On the one hand, it’s a highly functional rolling case for books; on the other, it’s an approachable and aesthetically pleasing piece of furniture that fits seamlessly into its environment.”[1] Quite a lofty goal for a prison.

NYPL’s staff clearly inspired the Parsons students by sharing their own experiences working within the two correctional facilities and then inviting Professor Stoehr and his students to join them in delivering services. In shared discussions, staff and students moved from ideology to logistics—about how something as simple as a usable book cart could provide a more humanizing experience for the incarcerated. “The carts needed to be durable, easily movable and easily maintained,” said Stoer, “and the new carts attempted creative ways of holding [reading material], eliminating the need for boxes.”[2]

Sarah Ball had already briefed them on avoiding removable parts or exposed hardware, and since most correctional facilities limit the use of hardcover books, the students designed carts for paperbacks. The students created a tapered steel-framed cart supporting a cascading system of natural maple wood plywood shelves. Eight-inch casters helped the cart roll effortlessly across awkward prison thresholds.

Volf explains the key to the structural balance that the students achieved: creating a dynamic and active, not rigid, cart that uses steel tubing in combination with natural wood. The students powder-coated the cart (one hot pink) to temper the steel and to leverage its strength, and they tapered the angles of its sides. Volf notes, “Folks who’ll be using this cart see enough steel in grid formation, and we thought that we could say something different, even if we’re using similar materials.”[3] The design students clearly gained new insights about the incarcerated but never lost sight of their original purpose: user accessibility.

Professor Stoehr added that the tapered profile has an added advantage: Users can see what’s on the bottom shelf without kneeling (a request by the NYPL staff). In addition, the shelves are now tipped back, allowing book spines to face up. And the students designed one added feature, a special section reserved for periodical materials like newspapers, magazines, and comic books.[4]  Evident in their desire to please were Professor Stoehr’s and his students’ admiration and appreciation of the NYPL staff and volunteers. They weren’t overlooked. “The handles might seem like a minor detail, but they are actually the touchpoint the librarian will interface with most frequently. We wrapped steel in maple to provide staff something that will feel good in the hand and will last a good time.”[5]

“Put two librarians’ heads together, and mountains move.”[6] Author Richard Peck’s sentiment underscores the power of a librarian’s influence on the world. The Parsons students captured the NYPL Correctional Services’ energy in the spaces and furniture where these dedicated librarians work. “Through this collaborative project with NYPL, our students are using design thinking to address a social need,” Stoehr said. “A book cart doesn’t just hold books: it provides an entry point to a piece of literature—a means through which incarcerated individuals can travel, if only in the mind’s eye, beyond their present situation.”[7]

What happens when you combine books, accessibility and invention? Thinking. Anywhere. Even in jail.


[1] Mikhail Volf, “Parsons Students Design Book Carts for New York City correctional Facilities,” New School press release, February 9, 2016.

[2] Joel Stoehr, assistant professor of modeling technology at Parsons, in e-mail interview with author, March 23, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Richard Peck, Here Lies the Librarian (New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2006) do you know what page this quote is on?.

[7] Joel Stoehr, “Parsons Students Design Book Carts for New York City correctional Facilities,” New School press release, February 9, 2016.