There was a time when I would gaze wistfully into the abandoned, dust-encrusted library and think of what a shame it was for all of it to go unused. Since then I have had the privilege of becoming the individual whose responsibility it is to corral the cornucopia of paperbacks and hardcovers into some semblance of order. I couldn’t be happier.
I’d been toiling in the purgatory of scrubbing scummy showers and swabbing out excremental toilets. These were my main job requirements. There were days when it seemed like all I did was clean up other people’s messes. The position provided me with a deeper understanding of how truly, horrifically filthy and disgusting people are. There were certain perks to the job, but I mostly longed for the day when I would get an assignment that wasn’t quite so mindless and nasty.
Then one day, completely out of the blue, I got exactly what I’d always wanted. The mail arrived with an official notice for me to report to my new job assignment the next day as the general library clerk. I didn’t even know the general library was reopening, but once my disbelief ebbed I was beyond ecstatic.
When I reported for duty, I was greeted by my new supervisor who was polite but curt, and if I said she was five feet tall, it would be a generous guesstimation. She wanted to know if I knew the alphabet, or rather how adept I was with it. The question wasn’t asked out of condescension, but simply a necessary curiosity as she had to gauge my general level of literacy. A stack of books was presented, and I alphabetized them according to the author’s last name lickety-split to her satisfaction. She seemed surprised, but pleasantly so. I wanted to be offended, but having met countless guys over the years who were borderline illiterate (and plenty of outright illiterate ones as well) I suppose I couldn’t fault her for assuming that I was potentially less than scholarly. With my credentials as an individual capable of reading established, she set me to work immediately. There were books stacked everywhere, shelves out of order, dust piled on all available surfaces. To say that we had our work cut out for us would’ve been a grand understatement.
There was so much to do, but day by day and bit by bit progress was made. Books were labeled and catalogued. I cleaned all the bookshelves and tables before rearranging them to the liking of the new librarian. Every day I woke up brainstorming about how to best tackle the task before me and achieve optimal efficiency. At the close of each work day I wished I could stay a little longer, accomplish a little more. Having a clear sense of purpose was intoxicating.
In just a little over a month we had transformed the space into something respectable that was easily recognizable as a library. Gawkers and passersby were frequently heard to remark: “Oh, wow; they’re opening the library?” with a tone of wonder, surprise, and approval. The more that guys heard about it, the more positive feedback we received, and once we opened to visitors there was a steady stream of requests that kept the place filled each session we had.
With these visitors, we also received copious amounts of donated books. Since the library had been closed for so long, there was no outlet for what guys could do with the books their families and loved ones sent to them. This meant that each day we received at least a dozen items that had to be stamped as the property of DOC, assigned an inventory number, catalogued, labeled with the proper tag (fiction, biography, etc), and a pocket with a card created and taped to the inside cover. Receiving these books and performing this process was my responsibility, and it seemed to never end as more books were constantly coming in.
A Wonderful Conundrum
An embarrassment of riches was quickly what we had on our hands. Boxes filled with books that were waiting to be inventoried and added to the collection began to pile up, and a whole new shame presented itself – a most beautiful problem and wonderful conundrum. The shelves were overflowing, and more books were still being donated on a daily basis with nowhere to put them. Once again books were being hidden away from curious eyes, but this issue has a ready solution right across the hall.
The inadequately sized room currently housing the library is directly opposite a space nearly three times its size that is only used for storage. DOC bureaucracy being what it is, the amount of hassle and red tape that accompanies the proposition is exhausting just to contemplate. While logic isn’t precisely a premium in prison politics, I imagine (hope and pray as well) that the logical move to bigger accommodations is a foredrawn conclusion. The room will not only give us the space needed, but also leave us room to grow.
Until such time, I’m just overjoyed to be doing something that I honestly love and that I’m genuinely excited about. There’s a certain honor and satisfaction I derive from being a part of providing an invaluable outlet for inmates to educate and better themselves.