Special Topic Paper


Reader’s Advisory Behind Bars

            “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, he needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment,”—Thurgood Marshal, Supreme court Justice.[1]  

Librarians working in jails or prisons are tasked with a unique situation. They must meet the needs of their patrons, but keep the safety and security of the specialized population in mind.  Providing library services such as reader’s advisory can be tricky when many correctional facilities openly ban books. In this case of direct censorship librarians must work with inmate patrons to find alternative books that will adequately fit their needs. By looking at the reader’s advisory strategy of a jail librarian, one can get a sense of how to subvert the censorship while still maintaining security. This paper with examine the issue of censorship in jails and prison and how librarians cope.  

Librarians are the defenders of intellectual freedoms; they strive to end censorship and work to meet the informational and entertainment need of their library patrons. Jail librarianship is an entirely different beast, some of the same theories and practices of public libraries are used in jail librarianship, but the most striking difference is the overt censorships that exist.  This creates a hurdle that many librarians must overcome. When the practice of reader’s advisory is placed it in the jail setting, a librarian must use every available resource to find books that will satisfy the user and maintain the security of the facility. By examining the rules of the facility, the inmate’s needs, and reader’s advisory strategy one can gain a better understanding of how to meet the patron’s needs when working with oblivious disadvantages. 

Correctional staffs, including librarians, are responsible for the well being of the inmates in their care, “we make sure that they are safe, well cared for, have the basic necessity, are fed, have a place to sleep, get to court on time, we are their nurses, their counselors, and we take their safety seriously,” Said one correctional officer at an Indiana Jail[2]. This heightened security only adds to the problem of censorship. Safety of the inmates and correctional staff is often the reason why books are censored and banned at jails. Books that encourage civil disobedience or teach manipulation such as The Art of War by Sun Tzu, The 48 Laws of Power, Art of Seduction, and The 33 Strategies’ of War all by Robert Greene are the most banned books at correctional facilities.  Jail officials worry that such readings could cause a riot or encourage disobedience.  Books are banned for other reasons as well. Books that talk about or glorify gangs, street life, selling narcotics, or graphic violence are not allowed in most facilities. Books that inspire or encourage racial prejudices or racial violence are not allowed. Books are even banned by the images they have on their covers. For example, if an inmate is reading a fictional book about Nazi during World War II and on the cover is a swastika. This book cover could spark a fight or racial riot because of the heated image on the cover. Images do have power and just the hint on Nazism in a design can cause the book to be banned. Jail and prisons have a high population of white supremacist gangs. Another inmate could see him reading this book and believe him to be in a white supremacist gang member and start a fight.  Most circumstances books are banned for legitimate reasons; however, this doesn’t make the job any easier for librarians. 

What is a librarian to do, how librarians manage to provide reader’s advisory when what an inmate patron wants to read is banned? There are a few strategies to employ when this situation is encountered. An article written by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Professor and Acting Dean at University of Western Ontario, states that “the challenge is to help match a reader to the right book at the right time…to recommend a good book, librarians must know more about why and how patrons read.”[3] Ross recommends a couple tactics to use when trying to connect patrons with books. Number one, responding to the reading experience wanted. Asking the reader what type of reading experience they want should help guide the librarian. Are they looking for an entirely different experience than they have read before or something old and familiar? Number, two respond to the need for sources for about new books. Librarians should subscribe to list servs, pay attention to book clubs, library association list and just remain current to what is trending now in the book world, and Third respond to the elements of a book. Many readers connect to characters, or settings, or events. Finding out what elements of a book that the readers like can be beneficial.  Finding out why the inmate reads a certain type or genre will help in finding the book that they want. If they are looking for urban fiction which could be banned then understanding why the read that type of book can point the librarian in an alternative direction. Knowing the appeal factors of the books that they seek will also help. The best way to discover what the patron is looking for is to conduct a good reader’s advisory interview.  Conducting a good interview is a lot easier if you know the patron’s background.

To better understand your patron’s one must first look at the inmate library patron demographics.  Author Shelia Clark of Library Services to the Incarcerated discusses the people who occupy our nation’s jails and prisons in her book, The most reliable common denominator for all prisoners is a history of poverty (Sullivan 2000). Other distinguishing features of prison populations include a predominate number of people who grew up in single-parent households, people of nonwhite ethnicity, and a disproportionate number of people with learning disabilities and reading difficulties.[4]” Getting a feel for your patron’s difficulties or disabilities can help you during a reader’s advisory interview because you will be better equipped to match the patron with a book that they will be able to read and enjoy. For example, knowing the inmate can only read a third grade level eliminates a lot of books that you may have offered them before knowing about their limitations. Whereas, before you may have suggested a Stephen King novel now you might try an early chapter book.    

After understand the abilities and needs that a patron has a librarian should utilize certain tactics. One tactic is to conduct a good reference or reader’s advisory interview. Find out what they want to read and why they like to read it.  One jail librarian in Indiana gives her take on the type of books that are frequently requested. "The most requested books are Street Lit books or urban fiction particular by the Author Teri Woods," states a county jail librarian who wishes to remain anonymous.[5] Ms. Jones was interviewed and she shared her thoughts about the facility that she works and conducting a reader's advisory interview.  For the purpose of this paper she will be referred to as Ms. Jones. Ms. Jones describes the facility that she works as a county jail in a major metropolitan area. "We are a male offender, pre trail facility. Our inmates are low to medium offenders which means that their crimes are not major offenses like murder, but we do have inmates on drug dealing, robbery, rape, battery, and DUI charges to name a few. The jail can house 1200 inmates and is right now at capacity." 

Ms. Jones goes on to discuss the most popular books, “I have found that the most sought after books by our patrons are the ones that they relate to. For the young guys it is Terri Woods, for the old guys it might be Louis L'amour or Clive Clusser. The jail house lawyers love to read John Grisham or David Baldacci, which helps them, builds legal strategy. Murder mysteries are very popular and are hard to keep on the shelves. When an inmate requests such a book I ask him, ‘what is it that you like about the book? Is it the characters? Is it the setting? Do you like the action, pacing, violence? What books have you read that remind you of the books? Are you open to trying new authors and types or genes?’ This last question is the most important in my opinion because; I use the tactic of what I like to call bait and switch. The library in which I work doesn’t purchase leisure reading material for the inmates the entire collection is donated. This requires me to work with what I have and make do when the patron wants a specific book by an author." 

Ms. Jones strategy is called active strategy and is examined in a chapter of a book by Catherine Sheldrick Ross. Ross’s book The Reader’s Advisory Interview explores how to conduct the reader’s advisory interview. Ross discussed some of the same strategy that Jones uses but includes using passive strategies to enhance the effect of reader’s advisory. Passive strategies are defined in the chapter as using spine labels on books, creating annotated booklist, grouping together books in a genre, or creating displays. The strategy is only passive in the sense that they librarian does not have direct contact with the patron.  “This behind-the-scenes work sets the stage for the reader’s advisory interview…you need to create a climate that encourages readers to talk about books and authors,” declares Ross. [6]
Working in a jail library can be hard and difficult work. Librarians in correctional settings are asked to do things that they would never consider in a public library. Librarians must pat down inmates when they leave the library and we must keep a watchful eye. Librarians must be alert; one to make sure the inmate is not stealing or destroying the materials and resources in the library, and two to make sure that the inmates do not cause fights or pass contraband to another inmate. Along with maintaining safety and security librarians must live with the constant censorship of books and ideas. They must work around a limited budgets and find alternative solutions to difficult problems. Discussing how to combat these difficulties, one can come to the conclusion that reader’s advisory in jails may be more difficult than in a public library setting but it is not impossible. It may even be inspirational to some, that despite the hurdles that a jail librarian faces, they can still match readers with books that their patrons would enjoy.  

References Consulted:

Erica MacCreaigh, “Readers’ Advisory Behind Bars,” Libraries Unlimited, http://www.readdersadvisoronline/ranews/sep2006/maccreaigh.html.  (accessed February 14, 2012)
Philip Ephraim, “The Importance of a Library in Prison,” Correcitons.com, http://www.corrections.com/news/article/28613-the-importance-of-a-library-in-prison.html (accessed February 14, 2012).

[1] Intellectual Freedom Manual, “Prisoners Right to Read: An interpretation of the library Bill of Rights,”http:www.ifmanual.org/prisoners (accessed February 12, 2012.)
[2] Interview with correctional officer, February, 2012.
[3] Catherine Sheldrick Ross, “Reader’s Advisory over the Next Twenty-Five Years,” Library Journal 126, no. 2 (2001):52-55. 
[4]Shelia Clark, Library services to the incarcerated: Applying the Public Library Model in Correctional Facility Libraries, “Understanding the Patrons ( Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 61-63.
[5]Ms. Jones (jail librarian) in discussion with author, February 2012.
[6] Catherine Sheldrick Ross, The Readers Advisory Interview.” In Conducting the Reference Interview” (New York, New York: Neal-Schuman, 2002), 163-175.

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