A Guide to Prison Libraries

By Jeffrey Roe

Most people intending to become librarians often have strong memories associated with their school libraries and the people who worked in them. Those memories are likely what draws some librarians back to primary school, where they work to foster and promote literacy, learning, and, simply, a love of books. Others opt to go into research, working in high profile special collections with fragile documents full of unique information or of particular significance to history.

Few library students probably envision working in a prison library as their ideal place of employment. Contrary to what you might think, working as a prison librarian isn’t a maligned path so much as an overlooked one; it’s simply not a job on most people’s radar. This is unfortunate, as working in a prison library offers librarians a unique environment, one that is proactive in promoting education, literacy, and civic engagement, among other ideals closely related to the mission of libraries everywhere.

Becoming a prison librarian isn’t particularly difficult. As with all professional libraries, prison librarians must have a degree in library science, generally at the master’s level (MLS). Experience working in a civilian library (such as a school or public library) is also generally required. Some experience working in corrections is also ideal, but not required; it’s simply a good idea to understand the constraints that prison puts upon both the incarcerated and those who serve them. You could accomplish this by volunteering at a prison.

It’s important to understand what a library is to someone who’s been incarcerated: It is a place where inmates escape from the drudgery of day-to-day life, where they learn to improve their literacy, write letters, watch instructional videos and so much more. Prison libraries don’t differ much from public libraries in terms of content, though some do have dedicated legal sections. Prison libraries even sometimes host book clubs! Library services can be integrated with other services for the incarcerated, like visitation.

Prison libraries, like public libraries, suffer at the whims of state finances, but differ from their public counterparts in other significant ways. Internet is often unavailable to inmates or librarians; when it is available to librarians, it is only during hours when inmates are not present. Prison librarians also act as corrections officers, taking on the responsibility of supervising both the inmates working in the library and those using its services. Generally, inmates tend to treat librarians with a degree of respect since the services the library provides offer prisoners a respite from prison life and a way to better themselves and their situation. Prisoners who engage in educational programs, such as library services, tend to stay out of prison upon release at higher rate than those without access to such programs. Just another reason to consider becoming a prison librarian.


Jeffrey Roe is the community manager for the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. USC Rossier Online provides current teachers and those working on becoming a teacher with the opportunity to earn a masters in education completely online. In his free time, Jeff enjoys attending concerts and developing his talents as a videomaker.


7 thoughts on “A Guide to Prison Libraries

  1. Yes, I think the work of a librarian is extremely important, and the work of a prison librarian, in particular, offers meaning and purpose in a world often lacking anything more than sensation and spectacle. Librarians may very well be our last great hope. (But please make sure that people are reading books–not just checking out the latest video!)

  2. I didn’t realize that there were libraries in prisons, but I’m really pleased to hear that they exist. As someone who appreciates and turns to books because of their powerful ability to transport the reader to other worlds, and to inspire the reader to think critically about his/her own life, I can only imagine the incredible benefits of having such a resource available in prisons for the prisoners. I have a lot of respect for those librarians who commit themselves to these libraries, and the unique population they serve.

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