Thursday, November 18, 2010

Running the Books

by Avi Steinberg
New York : Nan A. Talese, c2010.

The last thing Avi expected to become was a prison librarian. This former Orthodox Jew without an MLS applied for the job because, well why not? It was full time and came with benefits, which was more than he could say for writing obits. But the job came with much more than the description in the ad could entail.

As a librarian in a public library, I usually skip over books that are about working at a library. It feels too much like bringing work home. This memoir intrigued me, however, reminding me of a class I look en route to my MLS on serving underserved populations. Our class even visited a prison library as a field trip. And, I figured, his job was different enough from mine not to feel like bringing work home.

Well, soon after starting this book I realized how much of an understatement that was. At first I was put off by his casual use of swear words and his attitude towards the religious life he left behind. After he got the job, however, I became fascinated with some of the details of his interactions with inmates, his struggles with "the right thing to do" in various situations, and what his job entailed. It's about as different as a job in the same field can possibly be; we both work with books and try to have materials on the shelves that interest our patrons, but that's about as far as the similarities go. The high stress of his job and the constant battle between serving the inmates and keeping the guards happy gets to him after awhile. The descriptions of prison life and the lifestyle and choice of the men and women who were in that prison are not pretty, and drained me just reading the book. By the time I got to the end, the book started to feel disjointed and hard to follow. I wasn't sure if I ran out of steam or the author did. Still, this is a profession that doesn't get a lot of notice, and I enjoyed this look into an aspect of librarianship that is often fraught with difficulty.

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