"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Aug 8, 2009

ALA Annual recap: Correctional facility librarians

Here's the first of my (by now slightly belated) summaries of the various sessions I attended at ALA Annual.

The first thing I attended was a presentation on being a librarian in a correctional facility (which seems to be the politically correct term for "prison" these days). I will admit to some curiosity about prison librarianship. There was an option to do an internship in a prison library during SI's Alternative Spring Break program last year, and I nearly chose to do it. I'm intrigued in part because I don't know much about that kind of career, and in part because it seems like an even more focused way to perform service and advance social justice through libraries than working in a public library does. But it is also something I'm pretty tentative about. My impression is that prison librarians work in isolation compared to most of their public-library colleagues. Working in a prison would also, obviously, be inherently stressful.

I unfortunately came in a bit late to this presentation, so I missed a lot of the stuff about the typical working conditions in a prison library. The part that I was present for confirmed both my tentative interest and my reservations. The presenter argued that prison libraries share a lot, philosophically, with public libraries. She also noted that prison library patrons tend to be much more appreciative and polite than public library patrons (a point which I could believe, upon a little consideration). Prison libraries often are havens or "neutral zones" where conflicts that may exist elsewhere in the prison are temporarily shelved (no pun intended). And of course, they are vital for helping to educate and improve the literacy of prisoners, through programming and through their simple existence, thereby contributing to the rehabilitation of offenders such that they are more likely to be productive members of society when released.

But of course, the job has its stresses. Beyond the evident stresses of working in a prison (enclosed space, potential of going into lockdown if something happens, etc.), funding can be extremely scant or totally nonexistent (even for materials!), it can be difficult to build a rapport with other prison staff, the librarian is often isolated from colleagues in the profession, and the librarian must always be "on" -- there is usually no one else to manage the library or take over supervision for a bit if one is having an off day, and it is vital to be able to keep control of every interaction.

I'm debating whether the potential interest of the job for me is outweighed by the potential stresses. In particular, always having to watch what I say and maintain control of interactions could be quite stressful for me. I am also concerned that I'd feel too isolated from colleagues. I discovered in my two summers in archives that I really need interpersonal interaction as part of my work day, and I don't know if interpersonal interaction with patrons (as opposed to coworkers) would be sufficient to keep me from going stir crazy.

On the other hand, I am excited by the possibilities to effect real change. My interest in public libraries remains very strong, but in many ways running a prison library does not seem all that different from running a branch library, which is something I think I am quite interested in as well. And I do want to keep my options open, given the economy. Public and prison libraries are sufficiently similar that, should I be able to manage the stresses specific to work in a correctional facility, I think I would probably enjoy either career. Perhaps it is time to look into scheduling some informational interviews. Or perhaps I could get the ALA student chapter at SI to sponsor something on correctional facility libraries. (Other SI LIS folk: any interest in this?) At any rate, it's definitely something I'll keep in the back of my mind as an option to explore.

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