Words from Past Prison Librarians: Brenda Vogel

Here we continue our journey on looking into the perspectives of retired prison librarians. We previously looked at Frances Saniford and  Glennor Shirley. Our final retired librarian we will look at is Brenda Vogel.

Brenda Vogel, famous in the prison library world for Down for the Count: A Prison Library Handbook and The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century, was the coordinator of Maryland Correctional Education Libraries for 26 years.

Vogel calls the prison library “[a] curious mismatch, a triumph of good over evil, when it works” (xiii).

In “A Retired Prison Librarian’s Dream,” Vogel tells us that she still dreams about prison libraries, [l]ike a cigarette smoker who quits, not because you want to but because it’s time, you never get it out of your head” (xi).

In this piece, I like Vogel’s perspective on highly stolen books, partly because most of the dialogue is either to not stock the highly thefted books anymore or that it happens, so get over it:

Did you ever think of buying multiple copies of them so reading them wouldn’t be exclusive? So their value in the ‘marketplace’ would go down? [….] What if you had a procedure that would keep books from being stolen – like random shake-down of patrons by a CO as they left the library? The officer can check to see if the book is date-stamped. (xii)

Vogel offers a piece of advise before readers move from her retired librarians’ dream into her book, The Prison Library Primer:

And it only works under the heroic leadership of a librarian who is passionate, imaginative, cunning, conniving, creative, and convincing, a librarian who knows the course and stays the course and who keeps the library true to form in sight of the madness, corruption, and cynicism of the environment. (xiii)


Vogel, Brenda. The Prison Library Primer: A Program for the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2009.

  • You can find a large portion of this book on Google Books.

Words from Past Prison Librarians: Glennor Shirley

Here we continue our journey on looking into the perspectives of retired prison librarians. We previous looked at Frances Saniford and now we move to Glennor Shirley.

Shirley retired in September 2011 after being a  prison librarian in Maryland for over 20 years. She has a popular blog that she still writes for called Prison Librarian.

After coming to Maryland from Jamaica in 1980, where she was also a librarian, Shirley began her work in the prison library as a part-time night job to make ends meet; this job eventually turned into her career, which she considers a “happy accident” (Haldeman). She states , “I am basically a person who believes in justice and what is right. I saw these needs behind bars” (Rosenwald “Glennor”).

Shirley claims “that her time as a prison librarian has been the most rewarding portion of her career” (Haldeman).

Why should non-imprisoned support prison libraries and reading behind bars? Shirley was not foreign to this question: “She was often asked why taxpayer money should be used to make a prisoner’s life more rewarding. Her standard answer: She wants to help them become taxpayers again. Without an education, she’d say, that’s impossible” (Rosenwald “Maryland’s”).

A card from one of her patrons from the day Shirley retired:

With deepest thanks and gratitude on your retirement from decades of advocacy on behalf of tens of thousands of Maryland prisoners. We will forever miss your enthusiasm of library services and especially your gorgeous smile. (Rosenwald “Maryland’s”)


Haldeman, Annette, ed. “Glennor Shirley Retires.” The Crab: A Quarterly Publication of the Maryland Library Association. 42.2 (Winter 2012). 23-4.

  • If you follow the link to find a list of her writing on page 24.

Rosenwald, Michael. “Glennor Shirley, head librarian for Md. prisons, believes in books behind bars.” Washington Post 25 May 2011.

  • If you follow this link, you can also watch a video of Shirley speak.

Rosenwald, Michael. “Maryland’s beloved prison librarian retires.” Washington Post 9 Sept. 2011.

Words from Past Prison Librarians: Frances Sandiford

This week the library that I work at has two staff people retiring. Their retirements got me thinking about retired prison librarians and what they have to say in reflection after years in the field. Today and next week we will reflect on a three retired librarians experiences, beginning with Frances Saniford. Frances Sandiford was the prison librarian at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in New York from 1980 to 2000. Prior to her employment, “[t]o restore peace after the riots in Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, New York State prison authorities made some changes, including setting aside a place in every facility for a library supervised by a qualified librarian.”

She credits Brenda Vogel’s Down for the Count: A Prison Library Handbook as a manual for managing the library, for this handbook changed the library’s managerial perspective from correctional facility’s to a librarian’s.

Sandiford states that “the real difference between prison libraries and libraries in the free world—prison libraries are lifelines for the inmates, their one contact with the outside, a small taste of freedom. To ensure their operation, however, prison librarians must accept a few restrictions themselves.” And, for her, “it sometimes sent chills down [her] spine to know that the men [she] dealt with in the library had such sordid pasts. [She] felt the contradiction of providing intellectual freedom in the midst of prison security.” I like that Sandiford lets us know that she had troubles with the restrictions and knowing were to draw the line with intellectual freedom, for this lets us know that the profession may be harder when you are a practitioner in the inside rather than on the outside of the PIC learning about librarianship.

The major question many LIS students, or any student entering a profession, is how much you have liked your job. Sandiford says, “I’ve also been asked if, now that I am retired, I would consider going back as an adviser or some kind of assistant. The answer to that is also no. I did my time and paid my dues.” Although she has considered her dues paid, she serves as a board member of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, so her participation with the PIC is not done yet and perhaps although she would not go back, she might have felt fulfilled in her job.

Source:  Sandifrod, Frances. “Reflections of a Retired Prison Librarian.” Library Journal Archive.  6 Jan. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2012.