Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Prison Libraries and Cultural Diversity

By Glennor Shirley, MSDE, Coordinator, Correctional Education Libraries.

"Cultural diversity in libraries is exhibited through services, programs, and collections. Many people feel that to have culturally diverse libraries, the ethnic makeup of the staff should be representative in the communities they serve."

Using Sarah Long’s definition of cultural diversity, in 2002 I sent questionnaires to 110 prison librarians nationwide to assess cultural diversity in the libraries. Responses from 35 librarians indicated that financial constraints and institutional security were the main impediments to multicultural services, programs, and collections.

Demographics: From the returned survey, the prisoners were, 43% European American, 33% African American, 19% Latino, 3% Native American, 2% Asian. Of the prison Librarians who identified their race, 24 were European American, 3 Latinos, 3 Asians, and 1 African American.

The question was whether collections reflected popular and ethnic interest of non-English speaking, African American, Native American, gay, lesbian, bi sexual, and transgender inmates. Responses varied among states and among institutions within the same states. Many librarians said they provided materials that reflect ethnic interests, but services and materials were often hampered by lack of funds. Others said they were subjected to content restrictions imposed by their institutional security. One librarian commented, "The library tried to purchase good books and not trash literature like Donald Goines, though he is a popular author around here." (Goines is popular among African Americans in every prison across the nation). No librarian mentioned collection based on sexual orientation.

Language: Many librarians did not have the language to communicate with non-English speaking inmates and relied on bilingual inmates for communication between librarian and inmate.

Programs: Most libraries had no programs but librarians said they tried to reflect diversity in the collection. Some institutions discouraged cultural programs, as they feared this would result in problems among the various ethnic groups.

Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries and diversity

Recognizing the need for service to the increasingly diverse prison population, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries used LSTA funds, administered by The Division of Library Development and Services, to address cultural diversity.

The Inmate characteristics chart of Maryland Dept. of Public Safety identified over 23,000 inmates classified as 77% black, 22% white, and 1% "other". Since there was no separate category for the increasing number of Latino inmates, it appears they were identified by race in each of the above category. However, discussions with the immigrant population indicated that inmates from South and Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean did not identify themselves as African Americans or black. They identified themselves by their country of origin and wanted materials relevant to their culture.

Female inmates numbered slightly over 1,000.

We purchased and produced materials that included:

  • Spanish Legal dictionaries and popular materials in Spanish, computers with Spanish /English dictionaries on CD ROM, community resources in Spanish, Spanish translations of our Description fliers and the CD Rom "Discovering the Internet @ Your Library".
  • Dictionaries in a variety of languages for reference and circulation.
  • English Dictionaries on CD ROM.
  • Sign language materials for all institutions.
  • Close caption TV for 3 institutions with hearing impaired inmates.
  • Large print books for the institution with older inmates.
  • Materials with alternative lifestyles for 2 institutions.
  • Large numbers of fiction and non-fiction titles of interest to persons of African Heritage. This included books by and about African, and Caribbean writers.

After the collection was established, we observed that English-speaking inmates used many of the language materials because they wanted to learn a language to assist non-English speaking inmates. Inmates with no hearing, impairments constantly checked out sign language books.

Education instructors introduced Latino inmates to the library and its new collection- a first time event for majority of these inmates. Librarians reported that once the inmates were made aware of the section, they headed for that area on subsequent visits.

Because majority of our inmates are of African heritage, there was and is constant demand for appropriate ethnic literature. These materials were constantly checked out and are also the books most likely to be stolen.

Overall the materials purchased to satisfy diversity needs in the Maryland Correctional Education Libraries were well appreciated and well used.

--Glennor Shirley is the Library Coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education, Correctional Education Libraries.  Prior to that she has served as the Former Manager, Randallstown Branch of Baltimore County Library and East Columbia Branch, Howard County Library; as the Bookmobile Librarian, Jamaica Library Service; and as a Special Librarian for Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. She blogs at http://prisonlibrarian.blogspot.com/.


Catching Your Breath from the Jam-Packed Joint Conference

By Jan Meadows, Bookmobile Supervisor, Pikes Peak Library District.

If you are like me, you are just now catching your breath from the jam-packed joint conference of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services and the Association of Rural and Small Libraries. Libraries that sent their staff this year certainly got a good return on the dollars they spent. Each day started at 8:00 a.m. and didn’t end until 10:00 p.m.! There were great informational sessions during the day and then open houses and programs in the evening. I was able to take in parts of all the breakout sessions because my “job” was to make sure the speakers had what they needed and that everything was running smoothly during the sessions. So I bounced around a lot and in each session people seemed to be getting excellent information. Bless all of the presenters because they each did two, hour and 20-minute sessions a day--that’s a lot of talking! The participants all attended 4 breakout sessions a day--that’s a lot of info to absorb!

Carol Brey-Casiano, President of ALA, gave the keynote speech, “Grassroots Advocacy, how to take it home”. Carol is an inspiring speaker but also an accessible, down to earth person, so many attendees were able to talk with her one-on-one. What an honor to have her attend the conference! Thanks, Carol!

I was very fortunate to sit with two people from New Zealand for dinner the first evening.

Cathie Richards and Glenn Davidson, Mobile Librarians from the Whangarei District Libraries in Whangarei, New Zealand were two of the most delightful people I have met in a long time. Their program, “Mobile Libraries on the Move in New Zealand”, was both educational and entertaining. How lucky their patrons are to have these two folks bringing library service their way. And how lucky we all were to hear about their service, sing along to Glenn’s guitar and enjoy their wonderful wit and humor. They, alone, were worth the trip to Columbus for me, and I hope they felt that their very long trip was worth it for them also. Thank you Cathie and Glenn! I hope I get to visit your country one day!

The program “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: A special storytelling performance” was another rousing success. Stan Maclin and friends had the hotel rocking and the bookmobilers dancing. Music for the soul!

Personally, I thought the joint conference was a big success. I enjoyed meeting the ARSL members and feel we all had a lot in common and many of the same issues. I hope we continue to combine conferences in the future.

All in all it was another great conference. The best part for many of us is the networking with our partners in library service, which includes the vendors. Thanks to all the vendors who showed us their wares and supported the conference. It couldn’t happen without your participation. We appreciate you!

Right now we are all awaiting the results of the election of officers and the acceptance (or not) of the by-laws of the Association of Bookmobile and Outreach Services. I hope that we can all pull together and that everyone will strive to offer input and effort into getting the association established and working. The officers and the board need to be responsive to the members and the members need to make their wishes known to the officers/board. Only in working together will this endeavor succeed. Are you each willing to work at making it happen? I hope so! One cannot be a passive member and expect anything good in return.

In the next column I will give you the details of the exciting programs OLOS has in store for outreach staff at ALA in Chicago, June 2005. We have some great speakers lined up!

Until then, please remember I can be reached at jmeadows@ppld.org and I am always happy to hear from you! Wishing each of you Happy Holidays and a Bright New Year!

Filed under: Bookmobiles No Comments