“You Work Where?” | Reference Backtalk

In these tough times, many librarians are the ones left behind after cutbacks, doing a reference job they never expected. Michael Bemis’s acclimation to work in a maximum-security prison shows that even in the most extreme environment, it’s just the reference work you know and love.‚ Ed.

Ask the average Joe or Joan where the librarians are, and most likely they will respond with a comment about their friendly public neighborhood institution. It might come as a shock, then, that my books and I are deep inside a Level 5 prison, the only one of its kind in my state. Located in the Twin Cities suburb of Oak Park Heights, MN, this is as maximum as maximum-security gets. The 435 incarcerated men didn’t end up here by accident‚ they make up a select group that other prisons in the state (or even sometimes other states) either can’t or don’t want to deal with and collectively present the greatest danger to the public.

Getting used to working in such an environment takes time. It starts with the lingo. I was told early on that there was a kite waiting for me and had a flashback to my childhood, but I learned that in prison parlance, a kite is a kind of form letter that offenders use to communicate with prison staff, to request information, for example. And as readers may have already noted, we do not call the men here prisoners or even inmates.

No one shows up at a place like this and just punches in. For civilians like myself, there is a two-week training period called The Academy, in which eight-hour days are spent learning about self-defense, criminal psychology, communications (we all carry two-way radios), first aid, and a host of other topics. Once I had successfully completed this course of instruction, I was allowed to work in the library with the men. Yes, thick steel bars barricade the windows, but other than that, we have novels, a reference section, a magazine rack, and music CDs, all of which make it seem like pretty familiar surroundings.

While a good portion of the building is underground, the library is about two levels up from the rec field below, so the space does receive a fair amount of natural light. Computers loaded with the library’s OPAC abut one wall (no Internet for these folks), while low, dark wood bookshelves wrap around the perimeter. Tables and chairs take up most of the middle. Services provided include book delivery to cellblocks (library use is a privilege, not a right) and interlibrary loan. For those who desire books not found in the prison library collection, we contract with our local county library system to get our patrons what they want, within reason.

This is where the prison librarian must walk a fine line. For most of us, it’s a natural inclination to be adamantly opposed to censorship, but in this situation, security trumps all. Therefore, certain materials are automatically forbidden: anything dealing with weapons, tattoos, escapes, gangs, martial arts. Ditto on materials that depict or describe sex or nudity. In this environment, knowledge isn’t just power‚ it can be a threat to the safety of those who work here, so a librarian must learn to accept the restrictions.

The majesty of the law is that it rests on a foundation of fairness, and certain materials must be provided, such as state statues, prison policies, and other legal information. Massive legal tomes are housed in a separate law library, of which I am also in charge. We also have a license to the LexisNexis database to find specific court cases, which we can then copy and hand out (offenders are allowed 50 free photo copies per week). Our professional ethics permit us to provide information but not advice.

For interpretations of the law and other weighty questions, we rely on monthly visits by a state law librarian (many law librarians hold a Juris Doctor in addition to the traditional MLS/MLIS). Provided by the Law Library Service to Prisoners program (LLSP), these visits match our colleagues with offenders who have made requests ahead of time to help with specific situations.

Reference questions run the gamut, just as in any other library. Recently, I had a patron ask what the seven wonders of the ancient world were. If I had the luxury of my former employer’s reference collection, I would have naturally gone to a gold-standard print reference, e.g., The Oxford Classical Dictionary . Space limitations over here spell S-P-A-R-T-A-N, however, so I was forced to run off a Wikipedia article on the subject.

As for general reading material, popular authors are popular with everyone, regardless of the patron’s level of personal freedom. As far as genres are concerned, science fiction and fantasy are big circulators, perhaps not surprisingly, as they offer views of realms beyond prison walls.

While there are special issues to deal with at this job, the rewards are plentiful. Books and magazines represent a lifeline to the outside world for these men who may not ever again go for a walk in the park or watch a sunset across a distant lake. More so than most library patrons, mine are truly grateful for what librarians provide, and that makes all the difference.

[For more insight on prison librarianship, see Frances Sandiford’s Reflections of a Retired Prison Librarian (ow.ly/6B9Sq), inspired by Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian (2010).‚ Ed.]

Author Information
Michael Bemis is the Prison Librarian at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights