As you will have seen by our other posts, we are given the opportunity to go and visit other institutions and libraries. It is a great experience to see how other libraries operate, and the spaces that people work in. It is helpful not only in helping you think about the variety of career paths in this sector, but also celebrates the diversity of libraries. They are not something homogenous, there is no single way of doing things, and the best way to see this is first hand.
Being told a few weeks into starting at the RCN that I would be going to visit HMP Wormwood Scrubs with my colleagues came as a bit of a surprise. Was I really that bad, that I was being taken to prison after being there for a few weeks?!
Regardless, I read through the prohibited items list very carefully, making sure that I hadn’t packed my poncho or hot-pants (yes, really).
After showing our ID’s and handing over our belongings, making sure we weren’t taking in anything we shouldn’t, we waited in the ‘airlock’. We were greeted by Tracy, the Prison Librarian at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. Making sure all doors and gates were locked properly behind us, we walked through the prison courtyard, being told to walk as close to the fence as possible as prisoners had a habitat of throwing things out of the window (I don’t think I’ve seen so many squashed satsumas in my life).
The prison library itself was back to basics, oddly reminding me of my school library. I wish I would’ve been able to take some photos, but handing my phone in made that very difficult.
We sat in the library as business happened as usual. There were two library orderlies (who were inmates) who helped Tracy and her colleague with tasks such as re-shelving, checking out, and returning items several times a week. During our few ours here there was a steady flow of prisoners coming both in and out, whether by their own volition in their free time, or as part of a class group. At first this felt quite strange, making me feel a little on edge – Tracy told us that you do get used to being in a room with 20+ prisoners, but you have to maintain an awareness at all times, regardless of how relaxed the atmosphere may be, it could change at any moment.
We were told that they lose on average about 30% of their stock each year. In most cases, these books just seem to vanish into thin air. As library staff are unable to check cells for particular items, they are unable to do anything about this. With a certain sense of irony, the most popular genre of book was true-crime . However books like, graphic novels, help with driving tests & driving theory, and foreign language dictionaries – owing to the diversity of the prison population – were also highly popular.
Book requests was an interesting topic that was brought up. Prisoners are able to suggest particular books to the library staff that they would like to see in the library. However, the ordering of the book is done at the librarians own discretion. For instance, a book on manipulation (or similar) may raise some concern and would not be ordered, whilst there wouldn’t be any problem ordering some generic fiction. While there were no religious texts on-site, there were many books on religion.
One thing was evident. Even in the face of cuts, changes in management both in the prison and the local authorities, alongside limits of what they were able to achieve in their space, Tracy and her colleague displayed an enthusiasm and passion for their job that was almost contagious.
Until next time,