Working Behind Bars – The Prison Library

When I think of career options in libraries, three main areas usually come to mind – public libraries, academic libraries (tertiary/secondary/primary) and special libraries. However, this view of the library profession doesn’t really do justice to the wide variety of library roles out there.

One such role is that of the Prison Librarian. I recently read a blog post entitled ‘A Day in the Life of a Prison Librarian’ by Andrew Hart which got me thinking about this very topic. You may have seen prison libraries in movies or television, such as The Shawshank Redemption or Orange is the New Black. However, few have probably ever had any experience with this concept in real life.

This type of role sounds particularly unique, as well as challenging and rewarding. Hart details the challenges of limited budgets and limited staff, relying on book donations as their “lifeblood”, as well as security and censorship issues.

However, Hart also explains the opportunities for creative projects and the feeling of gratification when he has helped the inmates to find information and learn. According to Hart, “providing educational, creative, and meaningful services is paramount.”

Interestingly, Hart recounts how many inmates will share their life stories, as well as their hopes for the future. I think it would be extremely challenging to maintain a strictly professional relationship and only offer advice related to books that could “match their situation and life circumstances”. Hart seems like an incredible Librarian.

The value of these library services for the inmates is quite clear. Hart explains that the library “provide[s] a means of escape and distraction so that inmates stay out of trouble”, as well as aiding in their rehabilitation.

A recent Radio National broadcast interviews Jane Garner on her research into the value of prison libraries in Australia. She finds that libraries can increase literacy levels and be used as meeting places, while popular fantasy fiction novels can help inmates ‘escape’ into a different world. She also mentions reading as a means to stay connected to family members outside of prison. As this Huffington Post article describes, there are many programs where parents in prison read to their children (during visits or through recordings) to maintain relationships and build literacy skills.

If you are interested in this type of work, Hart suggests contacting your local prison to see how you can get involved, offer assistance or create a partnership.

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Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.

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