A sunny start to June saw Jacky Mathewson come and talk to CILIP in the Thames Valley about her varied career and, more specifically, about her work in prison libraries. She started with an inspirational quote from an ex-colleague and Young Librarian of the Future 06/07, Simon Smith, which she felt summed up how she felt about working in public libraries, and probably struck a chord with every librarian in the room:
“I love being part of a public space and organisation which people can use in so many ways – for help, relaxation and enjoyment. Libraries are important because no one else offers access, help, inspiration and education to everyone without asking for anything in return.”
Jacky started her career working for The Economist Intelligence Unit, then moved onto the Arts Council of Great Britain, then as a freelance researcher’s assistant.
She finally found herself in Holloway Prison library for eight hours a week. Initially the prisoners were not able to benefit fully from the prison library; her job there was to try and help the women find books they would like, but with timetable restrictions she found herself with five minutes to help 20 inmates find a book. Needless to say, this had to change. They managed to make the library part of the ‘free-flow’ schedule, meaning that ladies who wanted to, could stay in the library for the entire two-hour period. This meant she could work with them on reader development. She also ran a course for the inmate library assistants so that they could show they had been doing something of worth while they were inside. She was dealing with women from wide ranging backgrounds, including non-English speaking women who had been caught drug smuggling to support their families, so many were in shock once they had landed inside. Understandably this was problematic in trying to find books they could connect with.
After a move to Reading, Jacky then found herself working part-time on the reference desk of Reading Central Library, a job which she enjoyed for its variety, with enquires ranging from wedding speeches to spider identification, and everything in between! This then merged with other reader services and she was put in control of acquiring the library’s stock of large print and spoken word, and she started a reading group for visually impaired people.
After seeking out more hours she was given shared care of the library within what used to be Reading Gaol, of Oscar Wilde fame, and which is now an institution for male young offenders. If the history of the institution interests you, Anthony Stokes, an ex-officer of the prison, has written a book, entitled Pit of shame (Winchester:Waterside Press, 2007). However, in the present day, what used to be the old chapel is now the recreation area, and the library is housed there. With no computer, a thorough knowledge of their stock is required, so they can keep track of the boys’ favourite titles.
They are dealing with some low levels of literacy so they have started a number of initiatives to encourage these boys to use the service; they regularly put together games packs, with word searches, spot the difference, and other puzzles. They also run the SixBooks Challenge every year, in which participants try to read six books, and write a small piece about them. At the end they receive a reward and a certificate which means a lot to boys who find reading a struggle.
They also run the Storybook Dads scheme, where a recording is made of an inmate reading a children’s story, which is then edited together with sound effects and sent to their child. However, in the prison service, inmates can be moved with little notice so organising future individual activities can be a struggle.
In segregation there are no televisions, so they always ensure these boys have access to games and books and, unsurprisingly, they are always welcomed! One of the great successes was a talk Jacky organised by Andy McNab, an author the boys like - no mean feat, as for obvious reasons, the security protocols in a young offenders’ institution are rather stringent.
There is a prison librarian’s network which offers valuable training and support; all prisons have libraries though they vary greatly.Many thanks to Jacky for such an interesting insight into this unusual branch of librarianship.