Posts tagged ‘prison libraries’

John McDonald on youth prison librarianship

We had our first ALISS (Association of Library and Information Science Students) luncheon lecture today and it was really well-attended! John McDonald spoke to us about his job as the librarian at the Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility. We invited him to speak since our program and classes focus mainly on public, school, and academic librarianship, but the survey we did last semester indicated that people were interested in non-traditional careers they could pursue with their MLS degree.

John was a really engaging speaker and told a lot of great stories. He walked us through a day at his job, beginning with having to leave his cell phone in his car and the intense security routine he has to go through to get into the building or even to go to the bathroom and continuing through his morning routine, the basic services his library provides, and some of the crazier things that have happened to him.

I guess I hadn’t really thought about it before, but there’s a huge difference in library service to incarcerated kids and incarcerated adults. Adult prison libraries are mostly about providing legal information and resources and might also have a paperback book collection for recreational reading, but the library at PJCF is more like a school library. The kids that John works with have indeterminate sentences, too (their release is contingent on their completion of a program, though you’re also released the day you turn 23), so there’s less of a focus on getting a degree and more on what John can do for them while they’re there. But they go to classes and John provides teachers with materials for those classes and he works on technology instruction and research instruction with the kids, too.

I was really impressed with how motivated, positive, and proactive he was about his job. He’s increased their collection by thousands of volumes by soliciting donations and they have access to computer animation software and video cameras. He’s also introduced a TA program where a few teens will be assigned to work with him in the library during their sentence, and this is where he feels like he’s making the most difference. The recidivism rate among his TAs is much lower than for the general population, and 15 of his 23 TAs have gone on to college–and a few of them are even working as librarians. He talked a lot about how a lot of the boys with whom he works are incredibly bright and motivated and that you just have to find something that will interest them and provide them with a little guidance and they come up with these awesome projects on their own. He also told us that when he started a few years ago, there were five other licensed librarians in the juvenile detention facilities around the state, but that now he’s the only one–and he thinks his continued employment is solely based on the programs he’s introduced and the high profile his library has at the state level. He also said that his facility is the only one in the state in which kids do actual research projects.

He did talk about some of the struggles that he has: he has absolutely no budget and relies entirely on donations; gang affiliations among inmates complicates his schedule and it breaks his heart when he goes out into the “real world” and sees gang signs among kids there; there are some kids he just can’t reach and then they go back out into the world; and some of the kids are incredibly destructive and ruin library materials and there’s not a lot he can do about it. But overall he seems really energetic and really positive about his job, and he talked about how the entire system in the facility is oriented toward rehabilitation and that he feels the library can be a huge part of that. He also serves on committees that determine whether or not kids have completed the requirements to leave the program, so he acts as a mentor to some of the offenders.

I don’t want to go straight into prison librarianship (and I feel like my gender could complicate things in ways I’m not prepared to handle right now), but after hearing John speak, it’s definitely something I’ll continue to consider in the years ahead after I get more experience in the field. It sounds like a job that is sometimes difficult–and maybe even lonely–but that it’s one in which you could make a real difference in the lives of your patrons in a very big way, and that’s exactly what I find so exciting about this profession.

February 5, 2010 at 5:11 PM 3 comments