The Making of History and Improving Reference Services (in the 1980s)

Michael Sawyer’s  “Inmates Do Ask Questions: Automation and Reference Service in a Correctional Setting” dates itself when it states that “changes included the addition of portable videocassette and compact-disk machines,” but some valuable lessons can still be learned from this 1989 article.

First of all, we get a piece of prison librarianship history:

In January 1987, history was made at the Chillicothe Correctional Institute (CCI) library in Ohio when the prison library automated its catalog and circulation systems. This innovative program, implemented only after two years of planning and developing, and with the help from a Library Services and Construction Act (LCSA) grant, was the first of its type in the country. (49)

The library was lucky that there was a man behind bars that was a computer programmer before prison who was willing to become a library clerk. The library clerk’s time and skills were instrumental to this piece of history and improving user services.

Once their automated system was accessible for patrons, the focus was on improving reference services which included updating reference materials with funding provided from their grant. This was essential because:

The collection was desperately in need of help since the only area that was reasonably current was the collection of telephone directories provided without charge from the local telephone company. These directories are used by inmates almost constantly for parole planning, communicating with families, and answering reference queries. (50)

The library staffed the reference desk with an inmate library clerks that was trained to help with frequent reference interactions. The clerk would assist:

other inmates in satisfying their simple research needs, such as for addresses of political leaders and organizations, and answers to sports-related queries. (50)

Medical reference questions were the trickiest interactions to provide information and materials for because medical information is highly restricted materials in the prison.

There seems to be a fear by correctional officials that materials such as the Physicians’ Desk Reference or the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy will encourage inmates to self-diagnose or fake symptoms that could result in potential litigation. (50)

Implementing an automated system allowed the prison library to be more efficient in user friendliness (patrons being able to find their books on their own and quickly) and be able to focus on reference questions (and librarians and inmate workers being able to find resources efficiently as well). This new efficiency by the library staff and patrons led the library to see new excitement from the patrons for they were able to use the library much more differently then before and it became a more fulfilling experience.

But implementing automation is not in the historic past for the prison librarianship profession; it is the future of some prison libraries who still manually check out books and have a card catalog.


Sawyer, Michael. “Inmates Do Ask Questions: Automation and Reference Service in a Correctional Setting.” Reference Services Review. 17.4 (Winter 1989): 49-54.


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