or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 7/8/12

   July 14th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Alcatraz Prison Library PostmarkToday's reference question is a little different - another librarian emailed me and asked,

I have a question for you. In your opinion, do we have to answer reference questions from inmates? I received a letter from an inmate in Iowa Park, TX which is like 600 miles away and has it's own library.

As far as I know, this person isn't from here (which I guess shouldn't matter, either). It's just so creepy. The good thing is I can barely read his writing. From what I can make of it he wants a list of addresses of billionaires and occult something or other.

What would you do?

When I've gotten reference questions from prisoners in the past, we've always just answered them like any other mailed question. But, I have noticed that they seem to fall into one of two categories:

  • legitimate research (which is great)
  • asking for contact information for a number of specific people, or for groups of people (like "millionaires" or "reporters")

I've never not answered a question from an inmate, but I usually don't correspond with follow-up requests (which, every time they've come, have strayed widely from the original question). In those cases, I suppose the inmate could be just bored and looking for a penpal. I figure that if the question doesn't have anything to do with the local area, chances are the inmate sent the exact same question to lots of other libraries just hoping someone will respond.

I was curious if this was the right approach though, so I contacted Jackie Weddle, Librarian at the Maine State Prison. She said that inmates in her prison always start with her first - but because of the environment and their topics, she can't always help them. Perhaps those are the questions that then get sent out to public libraries.

If I ever have concerns about a question from an inmate, I contact the prison to find out what can and cannot be sent to inmates. But based on Jackie's answer, I think in the future I'll try to get in touch with the prison librarian, instead of a guard or administrative person. Chances are, the librarian will have a history with the inmate, and should be able to provide good advice on how to handle the request.

I'm curious though - do other libraries have policies about responding to questions from inmates? Does it matter if the inmate or topic isn't local?

And thanks to Jackie for providing some inside information!

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/27/11

   March 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog

KDOC logoAbout once or twice a year, we get reference questions via USPS from a prison inmate somewhere in the US. One came in a week or so ago - the question itself wasn't difficult, but I laughed when I addressed the return envelope:

[inmate name] #[number]
Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex
200 Road to Justice
West Liberty, KY 41472

Good job, Kentucky Department of Corrections.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/08

   August 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library behind barsIt's pretty rare that we get reference questions by USPS mail, so they usually earn special attention. This one in particular ended up receiving a great deal of special attention.

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.

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