Escaping Through The Prison Library

“Pimps make the best librarians,”  is the first sentence of Avi Steinberg’s  Running the Books: The Adventures of An Accidental Prison Librarian. This should pique the interest of most librarians as well as other readers looking for an unusual but good book.This memoir describes the two years Steinberg spent as a prison librarian at the Boston Bay prison.

Steinberg is not the type of prison librarian one might expect. Educated at Harvard and raised as an Orthodox Jew, he does not have much in common with the inmates he serves. But, in his memoir, he realistically brings the prison alive and also includes many details from his own life. An added bonus is his insightful  history of prison systems in general. All these components add up to a thoughtful, entertaining and educational book.

The library is one the great equalizers of society and the prison library is no exception. There are inmates who read the classics, poetry or graphic novels. Other inmates use the library as a respite from the grueling monotony of their every day cell life. Still others come in to use the computer, often for legal research in order to find a loophole to strengthen their case for a new trial or early release. Some meet fellow inmates for social reasons or use the room as a secret postal office where they hide or retrieve personal notes. Each day the staff must sweep the room looking under tables, chairs and inside books to find these contraband messages.

Steinberg relates some heartbreaking and brutal stories of inmates whose lives have been filled with violence and pain but there is also no shortage of unexpected humor. You very well may be amazed at what goes on in his library. If you can’t get enough of libraries in general, try out the following two books describing a day in the life of the public library: Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks, and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert or Quiet, Please: Dispatches From A Public Librarian by Scott Douglas. These are definitely not your mother’s (or grandmother’s) libraries!

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