Still here.. A reflection about Durland Alternatives Library


Last March the library closed in accordance with Cornell’s safety response to Covid-19. This of course completely shut down our circulation of materials, live events, and plans…

While the library couldn’t operate, Prisoner Express, which provides correspondence and programming to thousands of prisoners around the US was in need of immediate transition to an online platform.

Well, this wasn’t easy – as you can imagine, it involved scanning letters, organizing materials, remote volunteer events, and figuring out a lot of technical details.

This sent me into deep research mode. As a librarian, I had to try a bunch of things – I won’t bore you with the details.

Meanwhile, letters kept pouring in, and prisoners were also feeling the impacts of Covid in their own unique ways. Many of the letters reflected this new reality. You can read 3 poetry submissions here. You can also read journal entries, view art, essays, and more at

Already, hundreds of letters were arriving each week and we needed to start getting volunteers involved ASAP.

So much credit goes to Gary Fine, the founder of Prisoner Express who didn’t pause, not even for a moment. He immediately started working to make sure prisoners were being kept up to date and the program could continue.

While setting up the program, working on the archive, I also started offering technical services to other organizations struggling to adapt or looking for media support. It was the best way I could use my time when not at the circulation desk. These projects are all listed below. You can also read about them here on the library blog.

A Digital Volunteer Platform

The library has always been a community space, so how could we create that for Prisoner Express? The solution was a new website, a membership hub where people could meet up, attend events, and share their reflections reading the material.


So my big project over the past 9 months has been to learn everything I can about setting up an online community for volunteers to connect and work on projects together.

The immediate need was to create a way for volunteers to read and respond to prisoner letters.

Luckily, I was already working with Caitlin Holton, a librarian and advisory board member who had taken leadership on a digital archive and scanning operation for Prisoner Express artwork.

So Prisoner Express now has it’s own community for volunteers and has grown to almost 100 people without a single formal announcement!

We’ve been hosting live events and each day finding ways to connect more volunteers with the people and projects by Prisoner Express.

Click here to sign-up for the Volunteer Community and hear about opportunities and events to get involved.

The next event, How to Read & Respond to Prisoner Letters Online is coming up this week, Thursday 2/18 at 1:00 PM.

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

The Community Technical Support Desk

Growing up, I always loved visiting the reference desk at the library. I could get all my questions answered or at least pointed in the right direction. Librarians are some of the few people truly making technology available and I wanted to be able to create an online resource for other non-profits who were also forced to adapt their programs.

The support desk is a ticket system that operates via email. Simply email and someone from our super smart support team will do the research and bring you an accurate answer. You might even get me!

To give you an idea…

Stuff we can help with.

  • Blog publishing
  • Website Development
  • Team Communication Platforms
  • Volunteer Correspondence
  • Donation Campaigns
  • Online Events
  • Databases

Here is a page on our website all about it.

Help us help you. Complete our tech support survey here.

First Voices Radio

This project came about kind of suddenly. I was struggling to get my antenna to pickup our local community station WRFI to listen to First Voices Radio.

This is an excellent radio show, and I was trying to see if there was a podcast I could listen to. There wasn’t, so I sent them an email asking if they wanted to work with the Alternatives Library to get their show published each week as a podcast where each episode could be accessible outside broadcast range.

They said yes, and here you go friends… First Voices Radio.

Subscribe to FVR wherever you get podcasts, or visit

Impacts of Plastic Virtual Summit

The Alternatives Library helped to produce an online event that emphasize the need to switch to alternatives to fossil fuel powered economy and throwaway plastic lifestyle.

This event included a virtual screening of the Story of Plastic documentary. The film’s creator spoke and was featured in a panel discussion.

The main summit event was a Solutions & Actions Panel & Discussion. with Diane Wilson (we have her books!), Ranjana Bhandari, Julie Dermansky, General Russel Honaré, Luke Early, and William Barber III,

This was unique because it was structured like a conference. Participants had their own profile, a summit activity feed, and small breakout discussions with panelists.

Access the replays, join the A-Z Impacts of Plastic Group

Environmental Justice Film Series

There are two more film events coming up. The first is this week! on Thursday, Feb 18th at 7:00 PM.

🗓 The Condor & The Eagle – A virtual screening of the award-winning documentary and follow-up discussion featuring protagonists from the film.

This documentary offers a glimpse into a developing spiritual renaissance as the film’s protagonists learn from each other’s long legacy of resistance to colonialism and its extractive economy.

Their path through the jungle takes them on an unexpectedly challenging and liberating journey, which will forever change their attachment to the Earth and one another. This screening event is an opportunity to reflect on our common purpose: to honor the Earth and its Indigenous communities.

Click here to register via FracTracker Alliance

🗓 On the Fenceline: A Fight for Clean Air – Join the film screening & discussion on February 25th, 7:00 PM.

After a bankrupting explosion in June, the future of the largest and oldest oil refinery on the east coast remains unknown. Philly Thrive, an organization of frontline residents and environmental activists, is escalating their actions as they fight to keep the refinery closed for good.

On the Fenceline: A Fight for Clean Air is an urgent call for justice for Philadelphia’s low-income communities. After living on the fenceline of the east coast’s largest oil refinery and suffering from cancer, asthma, and COPD for years, residents have come together to stand up to CEOs and fight for their right to breathe.

The live Q&A session will feature film protagonist Carol Hemingway, cinematographer/editor Kristen Harrison, and cinematographer/editor Alisha Tamarchenko.

Click here to register with FracTracker Alliance

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What’s Next?

You’ll be first to know.

And if you’re not yet subscribed and would like to get updates from our program Prisoner Express, click here to subscribe.

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Ryan Clover-Owens

I'm on a mission to prove that we can live in a society that reconciles with our history, respects difference, cherishes the land and animals, and can create solutions to the challenges we face.