Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

I was extremely excited when I first heard about this book. As some of you may know, I’d like to go back to grad school to get my Masters of Library Science. Something most people don’t know is that while public libraries hold the key to my heart, I have totally flirted with the idea of being a prison librarian (everyone I’ve ever told that to–including a former co-worker who used to work as a prison guard–just gives me the side eye). Needless to say, this book immediately caught my eye.

Avi Steinberg, however, hadn’t given the occupation much thought. As the title suggests, Steinberg became a prison librarian somewhat by accident. A Harvard graduate stuck in a dead-end, low-paying job as an obituary writer for the Boston Globe, Steinberg answered a job ad for a prison librarian position on a whim. One hilarious drug test later, he was working as a prison librarian at Boston’s South Bay correctional facility. He is also in charge of teaching some creative writing classes to inmates. At the time, Steinberg had no formal library training and no real concept of how emotionally taxing the job would be.

It took me a while to get into this book. The first sentence is , “Pimps make the best librarians,” and when I read that, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, “Seriously, dude?” The first few pages expound on that initial statement, which left me wary of what lay ahead. I’m happy to report that all those worries were for naught, because once Steinberg gets past that unfortunate opening, his memoir opens a whole new fascinating–and sometimes heartbreaking–universe for readers.

The book is beautifully written. Much of the subject matter is oftentimes sad and dark, and Steinberg handles it with nuance. Though the premise of the book is based on Steinberg’s experiences in the actual library, the book is really about the people who come through the library’s doors. There is much discussion about the inmates’ bleak futures, the failures of the prison system, and the psychological toll it all took on the inmates and the employees:

Play took on many different forms. Through a hallway window I once witnessed male inmates clutching dolls during a class. After the lesson was over, I popped my head into the classroom and asked the teacher, “What was that all about?” […]

Apparently, some of the men simply liked holding the dolls, pretending to care for them, to change their diapers. They made a joke of it, used it as a way to flirt with her. But even after the joke was over, they’d keep the dolls in their laps as they worked on their school material. They handled the dolls with excessive care, she told me, and placed them gently onto their desk as though they were actual infants … “I have to laugh about it,” said the teacher, shaking her head, “otherwise I’d definitely cry.

Of the memoirs I’ve read this year, this one certainly revolved around some of the most fascinating material because of the ethical questions it raises. Steinberg does a terrific job of describing the emotional burnout of working in a prison. As he becomes drawn to certain prisoners, the readers also gets a more personal glimpse at the people behind the bars. Although I’m aware of the impact incarceration has on communities–particularly poor black and Latino communities–it’s always sad to read stories about the cycle of incarceration and its affect on families. If you’re interested in social justice issues, this is a good book to add to your TBR list.

There are organizations all over the U.S. that allow you to donate paperback books to prisoners, since most prison libraries are severely underfunded. As a matter of fact, this is what I do with many of my advance review copies one I’m done with them–I set aside a stack of books to donate to the Inside Books Project whenever I’m in Austin. If you’re interested in donating, you can find a list of prison book programs here.

Publisher/Year: Nan A. Talese, 2010
Source: Online
Format: Electronic

8 thoughts on “Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

  1. Wow this sounds really interesting. At one client site I worked at in Georgia they used prison labour and one of the men who cleaned the offices was a big reader. We spoke a lot about non-fiction books and I ended up leaving a number of books on-site there for him to read on his breaks (he wasn’t allowed bringing anything back to the prison at the end of each day) over the course of my project there.

  2. I quit reading this about 20 pages in because he was annoying me so much. However, the topic still interests me, and a book just arrived that I put in an ILL request for awhile ago: Reading is my window : books and the art of reading in women’s prisons by Megan Sweeney. I don’t know if you’ve read it, and I haven’t gotten it from the library yet, but if you haven’t you might want to look out for it!

  3. What a wonderful quote! I listened to the first few pages of this book before calling it quits. I’m definitely going to give it another try.

  4. @pagesofjulia: great minds think alike! 😉

    @amy: that was really nice of you. it’s terrible that they can’t even take books with them. i understand why, but it sucks. 😦

    @jayme: no problem! i was really excited when i first found out about those organizations.

    @eva: sounds like a really interesting book. i’ve seen a couple of documentaries about reading/writing programs in women’s prisons; their existence is so important!

    @vasilly: yeah, i also had the urge to toss it aside. the beginning of this book is really unfortunate.

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