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Lonely, Lost Librarian: Battling Professional Isolation

By Joseph Bouchard,  Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility, Michigan Department of Corrections.

As corrections-librarians, we spend our careers fulfilling the information requests of others. We provide inmates tools to ease their journey into the ranks of the free. We nourish intellectual growth, complement the education program, and facilitate access to the courts. In the absence of a facility library, staff would be left with fewer information options.

Whatever our personal motivations, we remain resource people with the needs of others in mind. But what about our own needs? Do we, as a profession, always operate in our own best interests? Assessing how we treat ourselves is not a case of vocational selfishness. It is necessary maintenance. We should act as moral support agents to all corrections-librarians.
Consider the challenge of professional isolation. As a rule of thumb, we have little daily contact with others corrections-librarians. To combat seclusion, most of us form vocational bonds with administrative, custody and programs staff. The positive benefits of this are empathy, exchange of facility knowledge, inclusion, and a greater awareness of custody issues.

Unfortunately, some corrections-librarians never seek the company and knowledge of colleagues from different classifications within the institution. Often times, they are overwhelmed by their tasks and unable make collegial connections. This results in what is known as the lonely, lost librarian.

Those outside the loop to feel unappreciated and bitter. Therefore, solo artists typically become the target of prisoner manipulation, staff ridicule, sabotage, unwarranted suspicion and a lower perceived credibility. With those burdens, loneliness will naturally intensify.

Exiled staff are always on the outside looking in. Isolation forces staff to become prisoners to their office, oblivious to the business of the rest of the facility. Therefore, the librarian’s full potential is lost to the facility.

There are ways to invite the secluded into the profession. Essentially, corrections-librarians have the same sort of problems. That is a common theme in all of the following unity tactics.

If your agency has not done so yet, form a librarian email group. This is a useful forum that poses questions among peers. Some query topics could include the mandatory law book list, interlibrary loans between facilities, policy directive interpretations, and discussion of posted rules. This is a mechanism that demonstrates that no matter the circumstances, corrections-librarians have common challenges.

Discussion lists
Electronic forums cast a large net than departmental emails. And many of the same problems are tackled, but on a larger scale. Also, National and international news is discussed. Conferences are announced.

Both corrections and librarian conferences offer topics that build larger perspectives. This starts isolated librarians down the road of common goals and outreach.

Field trips
With support from administration, more seasoned peers could welcome newer library staff to their facility to show them operations. This should be done for all new hires as an extension of new employee school.

Departmental training
At least once a year, there should be a regional or State-wide conference that addresses common challenges and triumphs. This is a way to connect email names to real faces. Like the national conferences, these are useful at building larger perspectives and promoting the mission statement.

Word of mouth
Accentuate our many roles. Support the concept of working both sides of the hyphen of corrections-librarian. Staff unity is a two pronged concept. There is unity between all corrections-librarians and camaraderie among corrections professions. In your contacts, support the very necessary concept of custody/programs rapport and realism. Combat niche elitism whenever possible.

The benefits of including all library staff into Team Corrections are many. Lonely, lost librarians gain respect from custody staff who, in turn, support library services. Burn out, rapid turn over, and manipulation lowers. Corrections-librarianship strengthens and can lend even greater support to isolated colleagues. Common efforts lead to successful completion of common goals.

Naturally, this is not without caveats. Tact is important in helping others. Care must be taken to avoid becoming an unwanted mentor. Too much coaching can be construed as harassment by some. Remember that is should be a peer relationship. Above all, it is about balance.

Also, realism is very important. Sometimes our colleagues place themselves in seclusion as a conscious choice. It is important for a would-be mentor to recognize this.

We have a right to be proud of our sub-profession. However, we should never forget that we are really a small part of the corrections profession. But, our actions and level of unity will ultimately determine how significant a part of the profession we will become.

--Joseph Bouchard is a Librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for The Corrections Professional, Author, Lecturer and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College. You can reach him at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321.  These are the opinions of Joseph Bouchard, a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections. These are not necessarily the opinions of the Department. The MDOC is not responsible for the content or accuracy.

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