So You Want to be a Prison Librarian? : An Interview with a Corrections Librarian
by Josh Rimmer, Senior Editor
* special note the author had permission from the interviewee to publish this as long as she remained anonymous
While I was writing my last article about librarianship and service, one of my inspirations came from research I was conducting on prison librarianship. How many times do you see a posting for a corrections librarian position on INDEED, or other big job boards? I’ll be honest, I’ve notice quite a few; however, it seems that discussions about the line of work and its issues are not given enough of a spotlight.
I was able to locate materials for immediate consumption, e.g., an old ALA column from a prison librarian and a neat NPR piece, but I didn’t feel as if I had an “understanding” of the work. Mintern, a corrections librarian who contributes to the blog, So You Want to be a Prison Librarian was kind enough to grant me an interview. We’ll call the interviewee Mintern, and here she talks about her background, why she chose prison librarianship and provides INALJ readers insight and perspective on the profession.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I got my undergrad in philosophy and history at a private college in the middle of nowhere, Iowa. I’ve always had an interest in the complex intersection between law, politics, and society, but I didn’t want to be in academia my whole life. Librarianship seemed like the perfect balance between academic scholarship and public service. I made a living while I was getting my bachelors and my masters bartending at a local brewery. When it came time to apply to jobs in the field, in addition to my education, I had a whole host of customer service skills to sweeten the deal.
Did you have any experience in libraries, prior to working in a prison library?
I had about two years of experience as a circulation clerk in a public library setting before I applied for a full-time position at the prison.
What inspired you to pursue prison librarianship? How did you go about researching prison libraries? What resources did you consult to help aid your decision process?
I am very motivated by gender issues and social policy, so when I first started my MLIS I already knew that I wanted to go into prison librarianship. I was interested in serving an underserved population, and I wanted a challenge. It was a tough road because none of my professors had any experience with prison librarianship, and they didn’t have any contacts for me to use as a jumping off point. Most prison librarians fall into the job, but I sought it out. Honestly, I spent a lot of time researching on the internet. The best part about our profession is that librarians are so inter-connected digitally. I read all of the prison librarian blogs I could find. I looked up different state laws governing library access. I read books like Vogel’s The Prison Library Primer, Clark and MacCreaigh’s Library Services to the Incarcerated, and even some criminological texts like Currie’s Crime and Punishment in America. After my research stage, I started contacting prominent people in the field that I found online.
What was the interview process like? What are the expectations for librarians in a correctional facility?
The interview was very much like other interviews for full-time librarian positions. I was asked about my skill set, my background, how I contribute to a team, why I wanted to be a prison librarian. However, working for a prison means working for the state. In addition to interviewing for the position, I also had to go through an integrity interview. The integrity interview is with a state employee who asks you all about the illegal stuff you’ve done in the past. Drugs, underage drinking, speeding tickets…the whole shebang. The key is to be honest about your past, and don’t lie.
The million dollar question, what is it like having inmates as patrons? What is interaction like with inmates?
Interaction with offender patrons is like interaction with any other patron with a few key differences. Librarians already have a strong set of professional ethics, so the transition from public to prison isn’t as harsh as one might think. We are there to help with offender reintegration and other personal goals, but there need to be very clear professional boundaries as well as consistent mindfulness about security and safety. I don’t share personal information about myself with the offenders, and there is absolutely no physical contact regardless of the sensitive nature of the information shared by offenders. There is also a constant need to be vigilant about what items are coming into the library and what items are leaving the library. We offer all the same services as a public library, but there are more obstacles to patron access. And, in a prison setting, you are serving the same patrons on a regular basis in a very controlled culture. It’s important to always be firm, fair, and consistent. If one patron gets special attention or you bend a rule once, the whole facility will inevitably find out about it. Professional collateral goes a long way with the offender population.
Are librarians the odd duck in a corrections facility? How much interaction goes on with Corrections Officers and the administration?
Librarians aren’t necessarily the ‘odd duck’ in a corrections facility, but we do have a unique role. Librarians go through the same five-week training process as the correctional officers and administrative staff, but we serve the population in a very different way than a correctional officer. That being said, we have constant interaction with correctional officers and administration. We are part of the hierarchy of the facility, and our bosses are the same as those of correctional officers. If the facility utilizes non-uniform staff in an emergency, the librarians will be in the yard right alongside correctional officers, so outreach to staff is especially important in this setting. We are all one team unified under the mission statement of the Department of Corrections.
In your opinion, what are the traits and attributes that are helpful for an individual to be successful in prison librarianship?
In order to work in a prison setting, it’s important to have a strong support system. This can be a very trying profession. Patrons might try to manipulate you or test your boundaries, and that can be stressful. It’s also important to be confident in yourself and your skills as a librarian. The population is there every single day, and they watch what you do and how you interact with other offenders. If you are having an off-day, they’ll notice and they might try to take advantage of it. It’s also essential to be patient and master the great art of multitasking. In a public library, a librarian might be in charge of cataloging or programming or inter-library loans or budgeting or book mending or archives. In a facility library, one or two librarians do all of those things in addition to serving patrons. The libraries in correctional facilities are often short staffed, and sometimes one librarian will have to run the whole ship. It can be a very isolating job, but you’ll have the opportunity to learn and practice every aspect of librarianship.
Any suggestions, or advice for those who are considering prison librarianship? Is it possible to volunteer, job shadow for a day, or conduct an internship at a corrections facility?
If you are interested in prison librarianship, you should definitely start with research, but don’t forget about praxis. I read about prison librarianship for weeks before I actually stepped foot into a correctional facility, and for the first few days I was so intimidated that I barely even remembered anything I read. There is something unsettling about working inside a barbed wire fence and surrounded by locked doors. It takes a person with a strong composition to be professionally fulfilled in this environment. So, the best advice I can give is to volunteer in a facility setting before applying for a full-time job. While there are a ton of hoops to jump through (state-mandated paperwork and background checks), I definitely think a trial run in the correctional field through volunteer work or an internship is essential before accepting a job in a facility.