Although it is more a personal memoir than a professionally-oriented one, Avi Steinberg's Running the Books
was illuminating for me in its explanation of the role and responsibilities of a prison librarian and of the space of the library itself in prison. (To be fair, Steinberg is very up front about the fact that he fell into his career as a prison librarian--"Accidental" is right there in the title and he explains in the first twenty pages or so that he didn't have a degree in library science.)
I found the personal side of the memoir--Steinberg's past in the Orthodox Jewish community of Boston, leaving that community, his relationships with several of the prisoners, and his startling encounters with many ex-inmates (and their families) outside of prison--interesting and often very moving as well, but since my e-rental period from the library has now expired and I don't have the book on hand, I'm going to stick to a few of the more specifically library-related bits that particularly stuck out to me:
*Although the prison library is an important place for prisoners to research legal precedent and build their defenses for retrial or early release, I was especially interested in Steinberg's description of the library as a place of relaxation, community building, and--in the form of the "kites," or handwritten notes that prisoners leave for one another tucked in books and shelves--communication. It reminded me a lot of the way that public libraries tend to be especially successful and useful to patrons now--more as community spaces than as the silent spaces for personal study that they were once.
*Steinberg describes the lengths that he and his fellow librarian went to in order to get materials for their library--not only through donations, but often by trolling yard sales and used bookstores and purchasing items with their own money. This (in conjunction with an NPR interview with the manager of the Maryland prison library system (here: http://www.npr.org/2011/05/29/1367655...
) reinforced my resolve to get together a book batch of donations for incarcerated individuals (via Books Through Bars in New York: http://booksthroughbarsnyc.org/
*The ever-shifting, incredibly nuanced dynamic between Steinberg and the inmates left me thinking a lot about the difficulty of balancing a sense of professional obligation to one's library "patrons" and abiding by protocols that are necessary for security and order in a prison. The passage where he explains the "orientation" session that he attended after a few months working in a library, where the prison employees are shown how everything from a pen to a hardback book to a roll of magazines taped together can become a lethal weapon was especially reflective of this. As Steinberg points out, the whole job of the library is to give inmates things--information, assistance, and yes, books and objects. If you can't engage in that simple transfer without some level of fear or apprehension, then it's very difficult to successfully engage with the people it's your job to help.
*Steinberg also has a great exchange with the other prison librarian about the differences between being a librarian and being an archivist. Since I knew within an hour of my one and only archival class that I was simply not meant to be an archivist at all
, I enjoyed this quick aside a lot. I was able to find the passage on a blog, so I'm quoting it here, but apologies if it has any errors:
”I think you’re more an archivist than a librarian,” he said.
He told me that archivists and librarians were opposite personas. True librarians are unsentimental. They’re pragmatic, concerned with the newest, cleanest, most popular books. Archivists, on the other hand, are only peripherally interested in what other people like, and much prefer the rare to the useful.
”They like everything,” he said, “gum wrappers as much as books.” He said this with a hint of disdain.
”Librarians like throwing away garbage to make space, but archivists,” he said, “they’re too crazy to throw anything out.”
”You’re right,” I said. ”I’m more of an archivist.”
”And I’m more of a librarian,” he said.
”Can we still be friends?”
Steinberg worked in the prison library for (I think) about two years, and it's clear that during that time--even when under incredible amounts of stress--that he developed a sense of professional ethics and responsibility the dovetail quite closely with those that were instilled in me during library school. It's heartening, I think, that working in a library environment (any library environment) has the potential to bring out similar impulses--developing strong service protocols, finding ways of providing access to information, developing professional/educational programs--in both people who have professional training in librarianship, and people who don't.