“HURRY UP AND WAIT!” Or, The best-laid plans of Librarians and Men

[In which we collectively witness the gears of the Machine grind, mesh, and grind again, and always slowly…Ever so slowly….]

State workers, man. From east to west and from age to age, you gotta admit — they’re consistent.

Back in August, I submitted a purchase request through my boss and then through her boss to buy $1,500 worth of books from the Shire Book Shop in Franklin, MA. August is over three months in the past.

A few days ago, I receive an email entitled ‘SHIRE’ from our Steward, notifying me that the Shire money had been approved. This is happy news because in our Department, purchases over $1,000 must first be approved by the prison Superintendent and then by the Commissioner of Correction. As you might imagine, this process takes several weeks to play out.

Picking up the phone, I call to the clerks within shouting distance, “Hey, we’re going to the Shire!” General cheers from their various stations. Library clerks are happy at the prospect of new books. So are library patrons. So is the Librarian.

I phone the Steward to ask when I can pick up the check. She says:

“I lied to you. The request hasn’t been approved yet.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

“I found it on my desk and thought that the Commissioner had approved it. But only the Superintendent has said ‘Yes.’ I forgot to send it downtown.”

“I see. Well, please do so. I started this in August, hoping to make the purchase by Thanksgiving.”

And that was that. Notice the Steward never offers an apology. I’m thinking that an apology was appropriate, for I was led to believe that all we’ve been waiting for was the decision of the Commissioner. Turns out he hasn’t even seen the request yet and doesn’t even know that it exists.

This is particularly annoying for another reason. In October, after not hearing anything for two months, I called the Steward to see where the request was in the process. I discovered that although she received the Superintendent’s approval, she hadn’t filled out the paper work that needed to go to the Commissioner’s office. In fact, she started doing so while she had me on the phone.

Ave Maria!


For the past five years, it’s tradition that I complete a major book purchase by Thanksgiving. This year, the Commissioner may not make a decision until after the New Year.

It’s typical. And it figures. But just because I expect it doesn’t lessen my frustration. Nor for my clerks, a few of whom have little to do until a donation or a book purchase arrives for them to classify, catalog, stamp, enter into the computer, fashion with a Mylar dust jacket cover, and place out on the shelves. One of the pragmatic uses of a prison library is a little game called Keep Library Clerks Busy. The greatest enemy to prison peace and good order is boredom. Inmates are proud of their library work and enthusiastic about getting a load of fresh reading material out to the population. It stinks to have to disappoint them. Not that they’re not used to disappointment. And not that they should be coddled. But they need gainful, interesting employment. Book buys help fill the bill.

Ah, well! This Thanksgiving, instead of showing gratitude for our bounty and the beneficence of the Commonwealth, we’ll give thanks that the prison still has a library that the inmates use constantly and do not take for granted.

Lemons into lemonade. And we have professional incompetence to thank for it!