Our last blog featured just a brief book review of Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian. Check it out here. The concept of a prison librarian is rather foreign to the general public. “What, a library in prison?! Why do inmates need to read?…” You can imagine how a conversation about it might go. Regardless of the type of question, there will almost certainly be questions.
As readers learned from Steinberg’s book, being a prison librarian is about librarianship as much as it is about other humane duties. The author did not have any library experience whatsoever, yet he was selected for the job. What does a typical day look like in this profession? Well, thanks to a recent article by Andrew Hart, aptly titled “A Day in the Life of a Prison Librarian,” we can get a pretty good idea. A lot of this was also covered in Steinberg’s non-fiction read too.
Some people don’t even realize prisons have libraries. Naturally, they might be curious what a prison librarian would do. (I know I was.) In any given day, a prison librarian:
- Puts on an authoritative air in order to maintain the security hierarchy and safety (safety is the most important!)
- Deals with inmate altercations
- Endures impromptu lock-downs in times of compromised safety
- Catalogs donated books (which sometimes come from the inmates or inmates’ families, or the librarians themselves)
- Seeks out and destroys “kites” (contraband notes left in books)
- Establishes either a place for respite for inmates’ sanity (something to do), or a place for them to perform law research in hopes of overturning their convictions, or both
- Treats the patrons with respect and courtesy, but does not befriend them (maintaining professional boundaries is critical)
- Responds to requests and needs that the library can fulfill, such as procuring books on topics of interest (author James Patterson is very popular among inmates)
- Plans and oversees constructive side projects, such as creative writing classes and community service projects for inmates
After reading up on the subject, it’s hard not to agree with Hart, that “a book can literally change a life in prison.” Libraries are magical places out in the free world, and it would seem only appropriate that they are even more special for incarcerated folks. Moreover, the job of prison librarian, though challenging and scary at times, is undoubtedly just as uniquely special.