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

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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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 7/8/12”

  1. Noreen Fish Says:

    We do respond to requests for specific info (we’d probably respond to the request for “millionaires” with a form letter asking for more specifics), but it depends on the institution and the individual asking. The local jail requires that any inmate requests be referred by the sergeants on duty.

  2. Lynn Says:

    My current consortium has a prison library as one of the members. Questions often come to other member libraries from inmates at this institution (questions must be vetted by prison administration before being sent). All are answered as best they can be given the nature and completeness of the question – even if the inmate is not a resident of the other member library’s community. Other members will also answer questions from prisoners that are further afield.

    For what it’s worth, our member libraries also answer reference, genealogy and local history questions from members of the general public that are not residents of their service area. Generally, they will refer detailed questions to a more local library that those patrons can visit in person.

  3. Jessie Says:

    I haven’t had to deal with that situation, but it does remind me of a question I have about finding addresses. It just seems like such an invasion of privacy to hunt down people’s contact information. Is there a general attitude about how far a librarian is expected to go to find contact information for celebrites, millionaires, and even common residents?

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jessie: our rule is that if it’s in the phone book or online, we’ll provide it to patrons. The online sources I use are ReferenceUSA, and then a couple sites like switchboard.com and whitepages.com, but it varies. For celebrities, we use Celebrity Black Book or web searches to find their agent or office, and for public officials we try to find their office address. We don’t get a lot of questions like this, and don’t do exhaustive searches (which, usually, isn’t necessary anyway).

  5. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    When I worked in the government documents department of an academic library, I spent a lot of time printing out Westlaw records based on legal citations sent in from a local prison. Some of them appeared to be legal precedents for various crimes or cases dealing with improperly-conducted trials, but the clear majority were cases dealing with prisoners suing prisons for ill treatment.

    As for contact information, unless an individual has taken the proper steps to remove their information from the public record, I don’t see any ethical problems with providing it. Just as librarians aren’t supposed to decide whether or not to check out a book to someone, it’s not really our place to bar someone from contacting a person who may or may not be thrilled to hear from them. As long as the information really is in the public domain, that is, and not culled from a list of celebrity cell phone numbers compiled by Russian hackers.

  6. wendy Says:

    It may be against library confidentialty policy or applicable state law for one librarian to discuss a patron inquiry with another librarian, particularly in term of the patron’s name and search query details.

  7. Reference Librarian (again) Says:

    Don’t assume that the prison either has a library and/or has staff (trained staff) for that library. In the state where I work (with the highest incarceration rate in the nation) that is definitely not true.

    My agency is charged with, among other things, serving them. We are averaging 25 – 30 letters (or more) a week. Some letters ask “real” reference questions. The legal questions go to the Supreme Court Law Library (thank goodness). Most are looking for addresses. Some ask for one or two at a time, others for 50 or more. We do limit how much we send (20 pages), and know that what is sent will be reviewed before the letter-writer receives it.

    They are library users/patrons and deserve to be served. They have information needs. Our job as librarians is not to judge their need, but to meet it. (I’ll get off my soapbox now.)

    Oh, and I love the Reference Question of the Week!!!

  8. Corrections Librarian Says:

    I would not give out any information on anyone before obtaining permission, in writing, with the correctional facility first. Giving out personal information such as addresses, etc, may be public information, but let us not forget that inmates are not in the public sector. They are in prison for a reason and public librarians probably are not privy to that reason. Until a public librarian verifies that the information the inmate is requesting is something that is permissible, they may be providing information that is harmful to the public.

  9. WitchyLibrarian Says:

    We answer questions from inmates from all over the country at our reference desk (not often, but every once in a while). I had a particularly interesting letter once requesting information on the Haitian population in our community, where he could find a witch in the area, and where he could purchase a horse. Another was looking for pictures of family members that were in the local paper. We do our best to give them the info they’re looking for, even if they are 600 miles away and in prison.