Starting early this fall, as the ALA Archives Graduate Assistant, I had the privilege of transcribing the oral history of Eldon Ray James, retired librarian, formerly incarcerated person, and advocate for the rights of incarcerated people. After transcribing over three hours of dialogue between Ray James and Deputy County Librarian at the Alameda County Library, Deb Sica, I believe I just got paid to listen to the most interesting story I’ve ever heard.
Ray James, before becoming a figurehead in the movement to secure information access for incarcerated people in the United States, served in Germany during the Vietnam War, ran for office in the Colorado House of Representatives, won awards for his amazing journalism in multiple publications, and was reportedly a part of the (unconfirmed) first interracial double date in Baylor University history. He did all of this before being sentenced to 70 months in prison for aiding in the distribution of cocaine and methamphetamines.
It was during his sixty-four months at the Big Spring Correctional Center in Big Spring, Texas that James’ childhood love of reading blossomed into a skill in reader’s advisory and his lifelong desire to help others into a long resume of organization and programming within the carceral system. Despite (or possibly in spite of) those who mocked the “old con’s” aspiration of becoming a librarian, Ray James has made quite the name for himself in the library world and secured himself a place in history for his astounding work and advocacy.
Once out of prison in 2005, James earned his MLIS from University of Texas at Austin. It was at his first ALA Annual Conference, at the invitation of his advisor and ALA President Dr. Loriene Roy, that he was introduced to the Prisoners Forum. Despite his apprehensions about sharing his formerly incarcerated status, the forum welcomed him with open arms, and he became chair not long afterwards. James also served as director-at-large of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table. He’s also widely recognized for his fine-free interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights – the impetus behind a historic movement to phase out late fees from public libraries.
Largely inspired by the difficulty he faced in the US carceral system, James has dedicated his own life to making others’ easier. He was a driving force behind an amendment to the “Prisoners’ Right to Read,” a document detailing the ALA’s interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights regarding the rights of incarcerated individuals to access information. This document has become a mainstay in any conversation about the role information access plays in the reform of not just the United States incarceration system but in other countries’ systems as well. James’ work has influenced national and international standards, incorporating the voices of formerly incarcerated individuals themselves into prison library reform.
After learning of James’ extensive resume, it’s unsurprising that such a person would be driven by empathy, something he deems the most important aspect of librarianship. In his words: “Knowledge is great, but knowledge without empathy is rote service. And I don’t think that works for the world in the long run. You have to be able to feel what those around you are feeling and respond in kind.” Perhaps we wouldn’t be ill-advised in adopting a little bit of James’ guiding philosophy – in both the library world and the world at large – to help us through our present struggles in the field.
When faced with the current crisis regarding book-banning censorship, and inequitable access to information resources, we can turn to people like James (if there can ever really be anyone like such a singular individual) for wisdom. When asked about his thoughts on the current atmosphere in the field, James reflected on his memory of the long-fought battle for equitable access and had this to offer: “It’s hard to get through this time. Because it is so thoroughly unpleasant and even life-threatening for some librarians, but eventually, this too shall pass. And we will be stronger for it.”
And isn’t that a comforting thought?
The Eldon Ray James Oral History is accessible here: https://archon.library.illinois.edu/ala/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=8892