Successful Book Donation to Vandalia Correctional Center Library (& I Met My First Paid Prison Librarian!)

Last month the 3 R’s Project (Reading Reduces Recidivism) was able to make a successful donation to Vandalia Correctional Center Library!

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Vandalia’s librarian, Steve, was able to travel to a collection site to pick out collected items to bring back to the correctional library. He picked out 135 books (61 non-fiction, the rest fiction) and 20 magazines. Fiction was mostly classics, science fiction, and popular fiction (ex: Patterson). What Steve was unable to bring back to the library with him was urban fiction (a highly requested genre) due to the hardship in being able to collection urban fiction in the community.

Being able to meet a PIC librarian was great! I could barely believe I had the chance to ask any question that I wanted to someone working in a PIC library! Steve was able to share examples of key issues in the library he maintains, circulation periods, collection development & weeding, and offer feedback on some of the issues I was struggling with. Meeting Steve provided confirmation that I was on the right path on preparing for and thinking about PIC librarianship and gave me that boost that was all sometimes need to work on our work a little harder. ūüôā

PIC Librarianship Presentation to be at Joint Conference of Librarians of Color

At the upcoming Joint Conference of Librarians of Color will be a poster presentation about PIC librarianship.

Deidra Herring (above), Education Subject Specialist at the Ohio State University,  will be presenting Making the Connection Between Juvenile Prisons and Academic Libraries: The Ohio Department of Youth Services Library System.

The poster presentation serves as a platform to raise awareness about prison librarianship and to better educate audiences about those library services offered to support the educational curriculum and literacy programming needed for incarcerated youth. The information is based on research presented in Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian focusing on the juvenile correctional facilities (JCFs) and library services in Ohio. JCF librarians and public libraries have been proactive, but what role do academic libraries play?

Also can’t be at her presentation? Read her 2009 article The Ohio Department of Youth Services Juvenile Prison Library System. Below is the abstract:

The article is an introduction to The Ohio Department of Youth Services librarians and the services they provide. Information about each juvenile prison facility is revealed and provides an explanation of guidelines and standards for prison libraries. Sixty-eight questions were asked in four in-person interviews to present a profile of the librarians working within juvenile correctional facility high schools and examines the effects of literacy programming. Six categories covered are (1) questions for the librarian; (2) questions about the library; (3) patron usage, access, and service; (4) programming and collaborative efforts; (5) collection development and budget; and (6) additional questions.

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 Рor 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 Рor How to Get by with Limited Help, Funds, and Time. Illinois Libraries. 73.6 (Nov. 1991): 567-8.

Some Advice From A Patron

While at work last week, a patron who visits the the university with her husband every summer began telling me about her stint as a librarian before she dedicated more than 20 years to teaching over 1,000 2nd graders.

Surprisingly enough one of her¬†librarian¬†jobs was at a probation office. One of her projects was to do a study to see who could predict a person on parole’s¬†likeliness¬†to re-offend by examining the client notes of probation officers or social workers.

She found that probation officers were more correct. Probably, she told me, because there was such a high recidivism rate in our current system and the probation officers were probably more hardened by their job compared to the social workers who took more of a “Pollyanna approach.”

What she thought would reduce recidivism rates while people are behind bars was to treat the population as individuals instead of trying to treat a group of people who are perceived as all the same, especially when it comes to education and learning in the prison system Рand that also means in the library.

Randomly meeting a patron who also has experience within the PIC with a librarian perspective, it was good to have her remind me of what libraries can offer patrons behind bars and to continue thinking about how to serve a variety of patrons with a variety of different needs.

Glennor Shirley’s Blog Is Down

UPDATE: As of July 26, 2012, Glennor Shirley’s blog is up and running again!

Glennor Shirley’s blog was considered one of the top prison library blogs.

Her blog, Prison Librarian, was located at

Last week she lost all of her blog content and I’m not sure if she is trying to regain her content.

The blog OLOS Columns: ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services¬†featured Glennor as a guest blogger until 2008. You can read her past blog posts under the tag Services to Incarcerated People and Ex-Offenders.

To read more about Glennor Shirley, read Words from Past Prison Librarians: Glennor Shirley.

Screening of Music From the Big House – And a Strong Hug When You Need It

Yesterday was the screening of Music From the Big House. You might remember that I already wrote a post about it: You Can Hear It Through The Prison Walls: Music with Rita Chiarelli and of Johnny Cash.

The making of this documentary, Music From the Big¬†House, ¬†began when Rita began her journey down the Blues Highway – U.S. Route 61. Her first visit into the¬†Louisiana¬†prison, Angola, began by a cold call from a near by gas station to ask if she could come in a visit, to see the prison where there is a rich history of blues music – including Lead Belly’s Goodnight¬†Irene.

Within the documentary’s soundtrack, Rita writes:

While doing research, with the intent that I would make every stop that is a must on this pilgrimage, I came across Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola.

The information about this place jumped out at me. This was a place that had a musical history, a history that had been archived in recordings – inmates recorded as they worked, spirituals, work songs, and blues… and songs by their famous ‘son’ Lead Belly.

It was my quest to add to the prison’s musical history, or maybe I should say ‘to provide an update’.

During her visit, a discussion with the warden began… after hearing that many musicians have performed concerts in the prison, Rita had a unique idea – to perform a concert with the men of Angola. That was something that had never been done before and the documentary was part of documenting this new experience and the present state of music at Angola. Music is performed in the genres of jazz (The Jazzmen), country (Little Country), and gospel (Pure Heart Messenger).

From each of the bands, the audience has the opportunity to get to know the some of the men via conversations with Rita. One of the men we get to meet is Ray Jones from the band Pure Heart Messenger. Ray is also Angola’s law librarian and in the film we get to see him in the law library where he also¬†religiously¬†counsels fellow men behind bars.

Through the¬†documentary, we see Rita struggle with being in Angola… one scene is of her in her hotel room and after a verse on her guitar she becomes heavy and embraces her guitar. Later on we see her express getting to know the men who are¬†truly¬†sorry for the crimes that they have been committed (and that perhaps their¬†sentence¬†and confinement is unjust) and then she expresses that we also cannot forget the victims. During Q and A, an audience member asked if the men in the film had a chance to see it. They did. Rita stated that she was¬†nervous¬†during the scene when she talked about the victims, unsure how the men would take it. They expressed that thinking about the victims was part of their journey too. At the end of the screening in Angola, Rita received a standing ovation.

Lately I’ve been struggling with handling the emotions of being in the PIC and being aware of how unjust the system is and how to handle the stress of the atmosphere. Being in the jail library isn’t necessarily stressful nor do I feel in any danger, but getting to know the patrons and having an understanding of their situation, etc. has been difficult lately. I attempted to ask Rita how she handled the situation of being in and out of Angola…

In the Q and A, an very young boy asked her how the first time in the prison made her feel; her answer was that she couldn’t get it out of her head – the size of Angola is the size of one of the New England sates… which one I don’t remember now that I’m home.

And, in the jacket of the sound track she wrote:

To say the¬†experience¬†changed me is an understatement. I’ve been changed forever.

I was nervous to talk to her… not everyday do you meet someone with the title of Queen of Blues! Oh, goodness! I could barely ask my question without crying because I’ve let the emotions of trying to find the right balance dwell for so long without knowing how addressing them. Rita gave me a big hug and let me have my moment. She pretty much told me I would figure it out. I don’t really remember what else she told me, but before I left, she held my hand tight and it felt like she wouldn’t let it go. Having someone who understood what it is like to have to deal with one’s emotions of being in the PIC expressing that I’ll find my way and provide physical comfort through a hug and holding my hand was¬†incredibly¬†comforting (especially when being far from home and away from a community where long hugs were¬†abundant)!

So, Rita Chiarelli, thank you for the hug and sharing your musical journey with us. What you have shared is shaping my journey with prison librarianship.

For more information on Rita Chiarelli’s documentary visit the documentary’s website. Rita’s tour is half way done – check out the rest of the tour dates on the website! Part of the sound track’s proceeds are going to Angola’s music department.

In case you missed it before, here’s the trailer: