For today’s post, here’s an interview I conducted for Uncanny Pop from last year’s National Library Week. It’s with librarian Dean Peterson. Since 2001, he’s worked for the Florida Department of Corrections and all but two of those years were in library services-the other two were in education. For the first nine years he supervised the libraries at the Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida.
You can read the interview below:
TA: What inspired you to be a librarian/library staff member, particularly one that works in a prison?
DP: In 2001, the Florida Department of Corrections had an opening for a professional librarian. Although I was not initially a librarian, I was a lifelong library user and supporter. I then earned a Master’s Degree (MLIS) from the University of South Florida using the state employee tuition waiver.
TA: What is one thing about working at the library that you love?
DP: I couldn’t get enough of the tough reference questions inmates asked.
TA: What’s something you learned early on in your career that made you a better librarian/library staff member?
DP: Speaking strictly from a correctional point of view, the importance of taking your time and getting things right, and not letting anyone rush you into decisions or actions. A large part of what we do is law libraries, and you’re dealing with legal deadlines real and imagined. You are often pushed for a fast response, sometimes in an attempt to trip you up. The number one thing I tell new library people is to take your time, step away, and find out what rule and procedure says. There is almost never a need to make a snap decision.
TA: Why is it important to promote literacy?
DP: Again from a correctional standpoint, the goal is to reduce recidivism. The vast majority of inmates will return to Florida’s communities. I want them to succeed in life and stay out of prison. Being literate is a proven route to success after re-entering society.
TA: How can prison libraries continue to promote library use?
DP: Keeping our libraries stocked with current reading a legal materials, and making them welcoming places for inmates to visit goes a long way toward promoting inmates to use the resources we offer. We’ve also seen success when implementing interactive programming such as writing and poetry contests and inmate book clubs.
TA: What advice can you give someone who is interested in becoming a librarian/working in the library?
DP: Embrace technology. Learn it. Get an entry-level non-professional position to get your foot in the door. Get your MLS or MLIS. Be flexible and resilient. Be reliable.
TA: What impact has public opinion have on prison libraries?
DP: Public opinion usually does not have an impact on prison libraries.
TA: Is there a stigma about working in a prison library?
DP: None that I’ve ever identified.
TA: How can prison libraries and the community that they’re located in work together?
DP: Community efforts help prison libraries tremendously. Book donations from community efforts have been invaluable for prison libraries.
TA: What is a favorite book about libraries of yours?
DP: I have not read a book about libraries, however this question might inspire me to do so.
TA: What are some challenges affecting prison libraries today and what can be done about them?
DP: Delivering general library services on a tight budget is a challenge, and building a working relationship with the community is one way to deal with that challenge.
TA: Who is a librarian/library staff member that inspires you?
DP: There have been three women who have played huge roles in my library career. First is Diane Walden, who is head of prison libraries in Colorado. She is the one who originally hired me when she was in Florida, and she is a giant in correctional libraries. She gave me a great deal of guidance in a relatively short period of time. Then there is Janet Coggan, who pushed me to get my MLIS and imparted a lot of good practical advice, along with being a good friend. Finally, there is Marty Morrison, the head of prison libraries in Florida. Marty is also a good friend, and it’s been my privilege to work closely with her the past year and a half. What I’ve learned from her (and continue to learn) has been immeasurable.
TA: What does the future hold for prison libraries?
DP: Libraries in the prison system faces similar challenges to public libraries. The fast pace of technology is a factor.
TA: What library projects are you currently working on?
DP: I continue to work on a series of training videos for library staff in Florida prisons.