Prison Reference Services On Little Funding – A Perspective from 20 years ago

Let’s go back to 1991 and visit the Danville Correctional Center Library with librarian Elizabeth Robson.

Robson reminds us in her article, Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time, that the reference interview is something all librarians try to perfect, but in the correctional setting:

in addition to the usual problems faced by “free world” librarians, the correctional setting presents its own inherent set of difficulties to the reference practitioner. 567

One difficulty that is faced include communication skills of patrons behind bars and listening/interpretation skills by librarians, especially narrowing the information needed by the patron and having patrons being aware with library terminology. An example provided by Robson: a patron request of “I need a review of book xyz” really meant to be”I need to RENEW the book xyz.”

Another is trying to provide information to the information need “often with limited material, resources, and time” (567). Reference material on the cheaper side that she utilizes are the following:

  • A general almanac – the most cost effective book in the collection – “One quickly learns the variety of information available in the $6.95 almanac, a tool which pays for itself many times over” (567).
  • State maps – that doesn’t have the restricted detail that is forbidden in the prison for security reasons
  • Government directories
  • Guides to colleges, universities, and scholarship funds
  • resume-writing guides
  • medical dictionaries and encyclopedias

The prison reference collection holds many of the same items that a public library would hold. The prison’s collection may have a wider scoped due to trending interests of the patron population. Some of these key interests are:

  • Time’s Life series
  • career guides
  • African American history
  • art and music
  • Islamic items

Since the above items are of such interest to the population they have a higher rate of going missing or as Robson calls them “rip-off” items (567).  With high rates of missing materials, Robson’s library decided to handle it in the following way:

Individual inmates can check out these materials, but they are limited to one item and one-week time period, and must sign a contract agreeing to pay for the tiem if it is lost, stolen, or damaged. This practice only helps to safeguard the collection, it also increases the chances that information will be available, or at least traceable at a given time. (568)

What is not disclosed to us why patrons are able to check out reference materials, an unusual practice with traditionally non-circulating items. A possibility is that patrons are only allowed a limited an amount of time in the library and patrons check out reference materials out of necessity of time restraints.

If reference materials are not in the library’s collection, it was the librarian’s role to fulfill information needs by “telephone and personal legwork” (568). The most useful resources to Robson were the Reference Department at the state library and the single fax machine at the correctional facility.  The most unique way Robson obtained quality information from her patrons was:

Visits to the Reference Department of my public library, masquerading as a private library users and attempting to conceal my “secret library identity.” (568)

Twenty years later, where Illinois prison library have absolutely NO funding for the span of 10 years, I wonder how Robson does her services now. Is she still an undercover patron… has the public library caught on? Does her e-mail provide access more than the single fax machine? I’ve heard a rumor that Robson might now be preparing to retire. Beyond the budget freeze, there is also a hiring freeze of prison librarians, which means the library will close when Robson leave. I wonder what she thinks about the state of prison libraries after being in the field in Illinois for over 20 years.


Robson, Elizabeth. Reference Service at the Danville Correctional Center Library – or How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time. Illinois Libraries. 73.6 (Nov. 1991): 567-8.


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