[In which we discuss the relative merits of murder mysteries for murderers, porno for pyros, and Parent Magazine for child molesters….]

When a patron walks into any other kind of library in the world, the mental, emotional, and physical problems she brings with her are her own. Unless her actions compel us to call the security guard or police, we’re not concerned if she’s got anger issues, or drinks too much, or reacts before thinking a problem through.

But in corrections, they pay you to be concerned about your service community’s problems. It’s because of their problems that the incarcerated are now part of your service community.

Which always gets gets me to thinking about the type of fiction prisoners often find on the prison library shelves of the United States of America. Can certain kinds of fiction be considered therapeutic as well as entertaining? There are certainly gratuitous fiction that your common sense would compel you to stay away from — you could name some, and so could I. But let’s shine a brighter spotlight on our correctional lending library collection to see what’s actually ‘tween them pages….

Take, for example, science fiction, of which there are various sub-genres, and certainly there are morality tales from certain authors who believe that the good guys must triumph over some particular evil. Same with fantasy, although with fantasy the themes seem to be more obvious, and here I’m thinking particularly of Tolkien and the gargantuan sweep of good versus evil in much of his work for public consumption. Since the 50s Tolkien has certainly had his imitators, dozens of writers the world over who have created their own worlds and peopled them with creatures falling heavily to one side of the good/evil dichotomy.

Westerns! Who’da thunk that Louis L’Amour was out there in the American southwest crafting dozens upon dozens of morality plays? But that’s what he was up to. I never read one of his books until I used his Daybreakers in ABLE MINDS, and discovered that there is true substance to the man’s work, a do-the-right-thing philosophy coupled with careful studies in good human character, therapeutic elements that rarely get preserved for the big or small screens.

Last year I had a conversation with a prisoner who said he read murder mysteries because they’re morality plays where the good guys & gals pursue the baddie until he’s brought to justice. That certainly gave me food for thought.

It could creditably be argued that Crichton’s Jurassic Park — at least in the hands of Spielberg — was a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankensein.

What about the plays of Camus? Satre? Tennessee Williams? Eugene O’Neil? The poetry of Donne? The novels of Dickens, or the short stories of Shirley Jackson? I’ve made a study of the Twilight Zone stories of Rod Serling, which are collected in at least four paperback anthologies, and much of his stuff centered on human frailty/ immorality and the sometimes terrible consequences of such behavior. These stories are in the fantasy section of the Norfolk library.

There are some who’d argue that the smut ‘n’ fluff of romance novels qualify not only as good, dumb fun but also as therapy, because you’ve got the pursued & the pursuer in a healthy social setting and usually the characters you want to see ending up together end up together and live happily ever after. Is Pride & Prejudice therapeutic? What would Jane herself say? Perhaps she’d agree, at least to see her work in the context of a correctional lending library.

All I’m asking you to do is to be thoughtful in your choice of reading material for the people you serve, where those that you serve have problems to overcome that might not be helped and even hindered by the type of material you provide. To me, that’s worth giving thought to.

To me, that’s part of the responsibility of a caring correctional librarian.

To me, that’s a professional way of serving your employer.

To me, it’s a good way of being accountable to the public.

To me, it makes the librarianship meaningful, challenging, even fun.

And you certainly will never look at your collection in the same way again.