Every acquisitions Librarian uses several time-honored and “wind tunnel-tested” criteria for determining if a particular book is good enough to be added to their existing collection. My experiences with corrections and with inmates has taught me to rely on a certain method of selecting which books are good enough to be tossed into my rickety stolen-from-the-supermarket shopping cart (the one with the front wheels that consistently and annoyingly veer to the right for some stupid reason).
- Quality. We already know that material should not circumvent the overall mission of corrections, and that mission is to protect the public. This mean the correctional Librarian should shy away from mafia books and other true crime, murder mysteries, stalker stories and other “kill-your-neighbor” fiction, and fiction tending to glorify criminal behavior and reward criminal thinking. I’ve learned through experience that—much like the “If you build it, they will come” mantra of speculative marketing–prisoners will indeed read various other types of fiction and literature if you take time to seek it out and provide it. For example: did you know that prisoners read romance novels? Well, they do. And now that genres are burgeoning into numerous sub-genres in the publishing world, there are a great many and varied romance novels to choose from. As you’d expect, not all prisoners go for this stuff, but you might be surprised to learn that these books are being checked out continuously.
But apart from which subject areas to include/exclude, other factors contribute to every book buy you do.
- Quantity. Because we do a substantial ($1,000) book buy from the prison’s budget only twice yearly, I like to get the most books for my book-buying dollar. So quantity has as much to do with the selection process as does quality.
- Buy Hard Covers. Because it’s a prison’s library, I believe in buying as many hard covers as possible. If I could, I wouldn’t have one mass market in the collection, only because they don’t hold up to inmate handling for very long. We do, however, have a competent book binder on staff, and to him goes the tedious work of keeping our mass market books in good repair.
- Buy Trade Paper. Having said this, I have no problem buying trade paperback in great shape, as they tend to take a better beating; plus, they seem to be easier to repair, and will stay repaired longer.
- Condition. I don’t accept tattered covers, or books that smell bad, or text that’s been saturated in a sea of highlighting marker, or text with copious marginalia. I also take no books that have had other books leaning on them so that, over time, their spines have been compromised to the point where their cant (the way they sit on the shelf) is compromised and they no longer stand upright… Another thing to watch for at the prison is when inmates write their commitment numbers in permanent marker on the outside page edges and throughout the text. We won’t accept books marked this way. We also won’t keep our own books which have had the Library’s property stamp scribbled out in pen or magic marker, in an inmate’s vain attempt to pass off library property as his own.
- Please your Administration. We know for ourselves that we tend to select books that are newer and attractive in appearance. Inmates are no exception. It does matter what the collection as a whole looks like staring back at you from those miles of shelving. And the reason it matter is because your Administration loves to see the shelves filled with brightly-colored reading material, which they are proud to show off to visiting dignitaries and American Correctional Association auditors.
- Used Bookstores Rule. I enjoy proving to Administration and prisoners that useful recent books in great condition can be had from used book stores. ALWAYS PATRONIZE LOCAL USED BOOK STORES.
- “Will they read the damn thing?” An important consideration – and probably THE most difficult one of all to determine – and the one that drives all acquisitions Librarians stark-raving cuckoo. To answer this, know your readers. To know your readers, you must mix & mingle with them each time the lending library’s open; pay attention to what comes in through your book return boxes; and talk to inmates about their reading choices………..Notice that I omitted the idea of “Checking your circulation statistics by category.” Circulation figures by category are the library world’s equivalent of a popularity contest, and to me they’re meaningless. You don’t need circ stats by category to discover what inmates like to read. INMATES LIKE TO READ WHATEVER THE PUBLIC LIKES TO READ. This is because until their arrest/ conviction/ incarceration, these folks were members of the public. Plus, since many of these folks are outlaws, then stuff that is against the law or anti-authority holds constant appeal. But to spend State money catering to these preferences is utter folly………Speaking of knowing your readers — Many’s the time when I’ve had a nice recently-published, beautifully-illustrated coffee table book about this-n-that ready to toss in the cart, and then the Acquisitions Angel on my shoulder whispers in my ear: “Whaddayou, nuts? You know that’ll sit on the shelf collecting book mites. Put it back and save that $25 for five trade paperbacks that someone’ll actually read.” Then the little devil on the other shoulder chimes in: “Look – it’s Dorland Kindersley! Lotsa pictures! AND it comes with a CD and it’s still in the CD pocket? You can’t pass this up! And look at the cover – COLORS! Think how GOOD it’ll look on the shelf!”
- Support the School/Other program Areas. Beyond the concept of “Knowing your readers,” you must also know what programming areas of the prison need your support. Check with Department heads before going out, and ask for lists of titles or subjects to search for. It’s great PR for the library, you’re working in concert with other prison professionals, and these people will appreciate that you thought enough of their work to want to support it.
- Guide Them. When dealing with inmate patrons and their reading preferences, even the simple act of choosing reading material must be ‘corrected’ and guided. Inmates tend to read a plethora of material which runs counter to their programming and rehabilitative needs. That’s why you make a mistake by relying SOLELY on circulation information to determine what material to buy for inmates. If the only criterion you relied on for acquisitions was circ stats, you’d only be buying Jackie Collins, Iceberg Slim and similar types of urban fiction, Ann Rice and other vampire stories, erotica, outlaw biker magazines, horror novels, etc. Just like young adults (I’m thinking boys here in particular), when left to their own devices inmates don’t choose the most wholesome reading material.
- Buy ‘New.’ Especially with science, health, and financial planning texts, the more recent the edition statement, the more likely it will be used.
- Supplement with Retail Purchases. We pay for an annual service from Brodart called the McNaughton Lyfeguard Plan. We purchase new fiction/nonfiction in reinforced paperbacks. We also receive the cataloguing for each title. In addition, if there’s any end-of-year cash from the Education Division, we’ll use it to do a substantial purchase at a local retail/remainder house. This way your collection gets a yearly infusion of newer titles.