Postmarked 24 May 2008 and addressed to the library Attn: Reference, two things immediately stood out about the envelope - it was written on a typewriter, and the return address was Bay State Correctional Center, Norfolk, MA.
Getting letters or reference questions from prison inmates isn't too unusual, and despite most peoples' initial reactions, they are treated like any other reference question. This particular patron introduced himself as a student enrolled in a correspondence course from a Boston university. For his geology course, he was writing a paper on structures and monuments made from granite quarried in New England, and was asking us for help locating information on Chelmsford granite, a stone native to this area.
The question itself wasn't really a problem; we have a book in our local history collection entitled Chelmsford Granite, a vertical file devoted to the Fletcher Granite company which has quarried here since the 1880's, and we also found a few websites mentioning Chelmsford granite.
Between printouts and photocopies, we ended with quite a thick sheaf of papers. As I was packing it to mail, I faintly remembered someone sometime saying that prisoners cannot receive paper clips or staples or rubber bands, or anything I might use to organize the papers I was sending. It'd be unfortunate for this research not to make it to the patron, so I called the correctional center to see what rules they had about inmates receiving mail.
After a brief conversation with the guard, who had to consult with another guard a few times on the rules, I learned that 1) no metal or fasteners of any kind were allowed, and 2) inmates are limited to four sheets of paper per envelope.
The four-page rule certainly changed things. I selected what I thought was the most useful bits and did some double-sided photocopying to maximize space, and also typed a cover letter explaining what we found, what was sent, what wasn't sent, and other organizations he could contact for additional information.
I felt bad not being able to get him everything, but I thought this would end here.
About a month later I received another letter from this patron, thanking me for the material. Also, he said that I had been misinformed about the four-page rule, and such policies were being challenged on Constitutional grounds. In addition, he said he would try to make other arrangements to receive whatever materials I couldn't send the first time, and that an associate of his would be contacting me for the information.
A few weeks after that, I got an email from his academic advisor at the college, saying that I could mail whatever additional material I had to him, and he would get it to the inmate. I still had all of the information in a folder, so typed up another letter explaining what it was and how it fit with the first batch, and mailed it off.
That was just last week, and I haven't heard back from either person. Hopefully, everything got where it needed to be, and the patron was able to continue with his research project.
It was a happy and interesting reference exchange, and I don't mean to be glib, but I just have to point out the irony of helping a prison inmate research granite and stonework.