Learning Without Borders - Parthenon Publishing
Raemona Taylor standing in front of bookcases with open book

Learning Without Borders

Librarian brings books, music and more to incarcerated teens

The teen center at Nashville’s Main Library is not a quiet place in the after school hours.

But as she watches a music video recorded by youth at the Woodland Hills Detention Center, the organized chaos outside her office door falls away for Raemona Little Taylor.

She taps her fingers in time to the beat, and by the video’s end a small smile has become a full-on grin.

“That was a lot of work to get done,” Taylor says. “We had a professional editor work on it, so you’re seeing the end product.

“They worked so hard, and it’s just amazing.”

Boy playing electronic keyboard at Woodland Hills detention center as Raemona Little Taylor looks on.
Working with an electronic keyboard and other media, Raemona Little Taylor helps teens at Woodland Hills hone their creative skills.

Winding road leads to library career

Working with incarcerated teens isn’t what Taylor had in mind when the Murfreesboro native wrapped up a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UT).

Working with children wasn’t actually high on the list either, despite the fact that both her parents are educators. But what she calls a “nontraditional” career path led her to both.

“I have always been a bookish person, but I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she says.

“I tried out different jobs, eventually going to work for the city of Murfreesboro’s Parks and Recreation Department, doing theater and teaching acting classes to youth. That’s where I found out that I did like working with kids in a youth services role.”

After that, Taylor managed the Boro Book Warehouse and found that she really liked managing a collection. Then, as though her résumé wasn’t quite varied enough, she got a job working as a researcher for a background investigation company.

“That got me thinking about information science, library science,” she remembers. “It all started to link up.”

Photo of bookshelf at Woodland Hills detention center
The library at Woodland Hills is limited in size and scope, so the Nashville Public Library’s offering is a lifeline to incarcerated teens.

Taylor finally made her way to the Nashville library system for her practicum work as she pursued a master’s at UT, joining the teen program in June 2015. Soon after, she was promoted to Teen Librarian. All the while, her interests continued to align.

“I’m fascinated by how information moves,” she explains. “I started out thinking I wanted to be more on the tech end, but once I took a look at youth services programming, I saw how I could be involved in public service, work with books and be hands-on in collection development and also work with teens.

“It hit all the markers I was looking for, and it’s amazingly fulfilling.”

Finding a new population to serve

This would be the point where most people settle in for a long, fulfilling career. But Taylor always has one eye open for a new opportunity, and so when an email from Woodland Hills’ volunteer coordinator hit her inbox, she saw possibilities. Lots of possibilities.

“They had lost funding for their librarian position, and they were looking to see if we could supplement their library services,” she says. “We said yes.

“We always want to do library outreach, and this was a community that has a real lack of access.”

“They can’t just come to a public library, and because they’re not part of the Metro library system they can’t take advantage of our Limitless Libraries program, which delivers items from our collection to public schools. This was a prime opportunity.”

Raemona Taylor in front of bookshelf with American flag


The early days saw the creation of a bare-bones bookmobile, where Taylor and library staff would get requests, then ferry books out to the detention center. She knew there could be more.

“We saw that they were, for lack of a better phrase, one of our most captive audiences, and they wanted to engage in more programming with us,” Taylor recalls.

“These are teens who do not consider themselves to be readers, but while they’re incarcerated will read tons of books.

“We began to see how we could introduce the positive aspects of literacy, how you can escape to different worlds.”

“But we also saw how some focus could be placed on reinvention, and so we began to look around at how we could expand and maximize what we were doing at the center.”

Raemona Little Taylor works with a boy on an tablet in a detention center
“A teen is a teen, wherever they are,” says Taylor.

That search led Taylor and the library staff to the LRNG Innovators Challenge, a program that began as a partnership between John Legend’s Show Me Campaign and the National Writing Project.

To earn funds, applicants had to come up with a project that was peer supported and teen-interest driven. It needed to be academic but also open participants up to future career pathways or, at the very least, positive activities.

The library team hit upon teaching through music and video production.

As Taylor puts it, “We thought this was a program that would build on what we already do at the teen center, through our Studio NPL Learning Lab, and also give the teens at Woodland Hills a connection to the library that they could expand on after their release.”

There were 164 groups vying for funds, and the Nashville Public Library was one of 11 grant winners.

The $20,000 award covers a one-year period ending in June 2017, after which they library can reapply for future consideration.

To make sure the program continues regardless, $5,000 of the funding was spent on technology that wasn’t already in Studio NPL, and a curriculum guide is being developed that shows how connecting learning works within the juvenile justice system.

In other words, everybody got busy.

From books to beats

Taylor drafted Zach Duensing, Studio NPL’s technology coordinator, to the team for visits to Woodland Hills.

He provides the professional-level tech expertise, and if weren’t for him, she says, “We’d be devoting most of our time to figuring out how to work a camera instead of filming.”

Teen boy playing keyboard at Woodland Hills Detention Center
Creating beats or playing music, Woodland Hills’ youth have responded positively to the opportunity to get involved in music.

Onsite, it’s all about the music.

“We take a keyboard and iPads there so they can make beats and write songs, and we also take the recording equipment so that they can put it all down,” Taylor explains.

“They write with us, and then we can film within the facility. We’re working with them on both music production and filming, so they can create entire projects.”

The first project to cross the finish line is the video now living on Taylor’s laptop, which could one day see wider release once some hurdles are cleared due to the participants being minors, as well as incarcerated.

“We’re connecting in- and out-of-school learning,” she says. “They are in school from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and we go once during school time, and then once after school. We leave their school issues to the educators there.

“Our part is bringing the joy and love of reading, and that supports what the teachers are doing in the classroom.

“With the music, we’re helping find another connection to what they are learning, and what they are reading.”

“As a library, it’s just a natural fit for us.”

Teacher, parent, mentor, friend

The work at the library and Woodland Hills means Taylor plays many roles: teacher, fill-in parent, role model, youth advocate.

Stack of books with Harold Love School stamped on top
Reading is fundamental, so priority #1 for Woodland Hills was books.

“For me, a teen is a teen regardless of where they are,” she says.

“They need support, and I have a real passion for working with them.

“Some are more engaged than others, but I can’t forget what some of them at Woodland Hills said when we first went in:

“They couldn’t believe the opportunity they were being given while they were locked up, and they were so grateful.”

“A creative outlet that’s also positive? And it’s free? I want to make sure that they have access to what they’re creating when they are released. I want to make sure their work is not lost.”

stop here checkpoint sign at Woodland Hills detention center with guard gate, barbed wire fence

Taylor is working to see if the National Writing Project might want to host these projects somewhere. Until then, she continues her twice-weekly drives to the detention center.

While there, she stops by the tables in the teen center to check a chess game’s progress, or sees why a teen is struggling with a homework assignment.

“It’s hard not to think of them as your kids,” Taylor says.

“They talk to us as mentors; we get to know them. We had a PSA contest, where they made spots about why adults should use the internet. One Woodland Hills teen won third place. They all got a pair of Beats headphones, and his are in his personal items waiting for him when he gets released.

“We have had a few from out there who have come by here after release, one of whom we helped apply for jobs — and he got one! We are bridging those connections, making sure they have support from the library while they are in, and after they get out.”

All told, a far cry from background checks.

“My parents sparked that interest in mentoring, in teaching. They were a little nervous when that desire led me to willingly go into a prison with a smile on my face, a big bag of books and a video camera, but they’re really supportive,” Taylor says.

“To work with young people in two very different environments, to make sure the underserved community of youth gets attention and resources that the library can provide … it’s a dream come true.”

Raemona Little Taylor in hallway at Woodland Hills detention center

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