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Libraries have long been a bastion of democracy. These grand spaces can embody the power of literature, architecture, community, and opportunity. Freedom Reads, an organization that supports people in prison by increasing their access to books, partnered with MASS Design Group to begin the process of installing 1,000 Freedom Libraries inside American prisons and juvenile detention centers. Their goal is to inspire a movement, one book at a time.
Paying homage to the original grassroots Freedom Libraries—spaces that provided Black Americans access to books during an era of de facto segregation—it was important that this new incarnation inspire readers. “Among our civic spaces, the library is one of the most hopeful,” says Regina Chen, a senior director at MASS Design, a social justice–oriented architecture firm. “We were inspired by the idea that the library or, more specifically, the Freedom Library, could be a symbol of resistance, perseverance, and community.”
Funded by a $5.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative’s first Freedom Library launched in November 2021 at MCI-Norfolk, a historic prison outside of Boston. A guiding principle at MASS is that design affects behavior and it can do so in three ways: directly, indirectly, and symbolically. Whether directly or subconsciously, Chen said, the design of the Freedom Library aims to challenge ideas around: “Who deserves dignity and beauty?” and “Who deserves access to craft?” “In prisons, the culture is one of regimentation. People are given numbers, counts occur at set points during the day, and the materiality reflects that: rigid lines, perpendicular corners, hard surfaces. What if instead we inserted softness? Nature?” Chen asked.
The design team drew inspiration from Martin Luther King’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” One of the key focuses of the Freedom Library is a curved bookshelf, deterring from a typical bookshelf, which is rigid and straight. The curved structure uses space as an opportunity in a different, more creative way.
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