Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 2005

Recruiting for Prison Libraries

Recent literature on library recruitment places great emphasis on the fact that within six to ten years over 60 percent of librarians will retire from the profession and that there will not be sufficient qualified librarians to fill the vacant positions.

This portends even greater problems for recruiting to prison librarianship where historically we have experienced difficulty in attracting qualified candidates to work in our institutions. While to my knowledge no survey exists that indicates the reason there is difficulty in recruiting for prison librarianship, the questions I am often asked is indicative of some of the issues.

The questions center on workplace danger. My responses have been:

  • Prisons have security personnel who are employed not only to keep the inmates in check, but to ensure the safety of staff and prisoners.
  • More crimes occur in communities, in parking lots, in people’s homes, and on the street than in prisons. Most incidents in prisons are inmate to inmate. The media highlight the slightest prison incident, in order to sensationalize the news.
  • Inmates respect the prison library because it is the one place that they can go for unbiased and current information.
  • Because inmates do not want to lose library privileges, their behaviors are often better than behaviors in the community libraries.
  • The librarian has the authority, with the support of the security personnel, to remove and ban anyone who displays inappropriate behaviors.
  • Prison libraries are used by people who want to be in the library, who recognize it is a privilege, and there are no after-school-kids encounters.
Strategies I have employed to encourage librarians to apply for vacant positions include: participating in local state library association to create awareness, giving talks to library school groups, inviting visits to the libraries, having librarians participate in workshops, and inviting public librarians to do programs in the prisons.

While visiting librarians are impressed with the positive atmosphere where inmates quietly use databases, research reference items, check out books, or just browse magazines, they often comment, “How good you are to be working here.” This gives the impression that the correctional librarians are regarded as missionaries rather than as professionals. To this comment, I normally respond cheerfully, “We regard ourselves as professionals providing services to special populations.”

In Maryland, salaries for prison librarians are competitive. Yet we still have difficulty getting candidates even after advertising in the local newspapers, on the professional job line, on the State Library listserv, on national electronic discussion lists, and on the prison library discussion list. We have had positions vacant for up to a year, then have lost those positions because they have been vacant for too long. While we require librarians with an MLS, in a few cases, we have had to modify the requirements in order to staff the libraries.

My hope is that the IMLS funding to recruit and train librarians will result in a flurry of recruits, some of whom will be committed to providing library services to the traditionally underserved.

For more information, contact Shirley by phone at (410) 767-0493.