PhD at 75: Jeanie Austin

Jeanie Austin

The PhD degree program at the iSchool celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2023. This profile is part of a special series featuring PhD alumni. Jeanie Austin (PhD '17) is a jail and reentry services librarian at San Francisco Public Library.

Where do you work and what is your role?

I am a jail and reentry services librarian at San Francisco Public Library, where I provide library services to people in the San Francisco jails and information to people incarcerated throughout California. I am also a principal investigator on the San Francisco Public Library's Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People project, which is funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

What do you see as the most important impact of your work?

People who are incarcerated are often subjected to an environment in which it is difficult to do all that access to information and books allows—to dream, reflect, plan, relax, and exist in a community of readers and learners. Incarceration most negatively impacts people who are subject to many kinds of oppression, including racism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia. Incarceration physically removes people from their communities and from the community resources that the library provides. Providing access to library materials and services aligns with the mission of libraries—to provide equitable, diverse, informed, and responsive services to all library patrons and outreach to potential patrons. This is a central part of my work.

Through the Expanding Information Access for Incarcerated People project, my colleagues and I have been able to build resources at a nationwide scale. We get to highlight the amazing work of librarians and information workers through a free and fully online training series on topics related to library services and incarceration. We've created foundational resources for people interested in knowing more about this work, including a white paper on recent trends and concerns in the field and another that focuses on technology and incarceration. We've also partnered with the American Library Association to update the professional standards for library services within carceral facilities

Why did you choose to pursue a PhD degree?

I began providing library services to incarcerated youth and researching library services and incarceration during my time as an LIS student at the iSchool (née GSLIS). I was fortunate to be part of a network of librarians working with incarcerated youth at that time and was very struck by the lack of attention given to incarceration within LIS. I began to question how professional philosophies shaped the value systems within LIS, turning both to critical thinkers and theorists within the field and in other academic and professional disciplines. During my PhD research, I was able to more holistically assess how the field might further turn toward social justice. 

What has it meant to you to be an alum of the program at Illinois?

Being in the program gave me the opportunity to think deeply and critically alongside my peers and mentors and leaders in social justice. Under guidance from faculty including Nicole A. Cooke, Rae Anne Montague, Christine Jenkins, Carol Tilley, and others, I was supported in developing a robust research agenda that connected LIS to other relevant disciplines. Cohorts before me laid the groundwork to make this type of interdisciplinary research possible—both by reaching out to other fields and bringing critical theory into LIS classrooms. 

What advice would you give to new PhD students?

Your time in the PhD program is an opportunity to think both broadly and deeply about your interests and professional goals, connect to scholars and mentors, and find the real world implications of your work. Locate others who are passionate about the topics that motivate you and take time together to reflect on your successes!

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