“Hope eternal, in the strangest of places”

(In which we are reminded that, in the face of tragedy and disaster, attitude is everything….)

An inmate with throat cancer lives in the same block as one of my class assistants.

The other day, the assistant tells me: “We hide his speech pen all the time.  He larynges penknows to check with me first, because I’m the one who usually has it.”

When the clerk sees that I’m horrified at this, he laughs and explains: “He knows we mean no harm.  It’s the opposite.  We want him to feel normal.  We prank each other all the time.

We’re not gonna let something like cancer or any disease get in the way of life.  What good does it do to weep, or say ‘I’m sorry’?  So we tease.

bitch cancer



It’s our way of saying “It’s not so serious that we can’t be normal.  You’re gonna make it.”



Curses in Captivity #1 — “If he only had a brain!”

Friday afternoon, I’m in the process of locking up a reference cabinet.  At the same time, rather than wait for me to finish and move out of the way, my 6’5″ ILL clerk hook-shots a discarded hard cover into the cardboard box marked ‘Hospital’ which rests directly above where I’m standing about eight feet high on top of this same cabinet.  Luckily, the book sails directly into the box. 

One clerk sees this & says “That would’ve been nice: You miss, it hits Bill, he’s out for a month.” 

My cataloger chimes in “Yeah, but now we’re talking brain damage.  You gotta have a brain to begin with!”

He’s calling his boss brainless, and in his presence.  That’s political suicide.  Which is why they do it.  That’s why it’s funny.  What’s he got to lose?  A dollar-a-day prison job?

About 10 minutes later, the cataloger’s there (doing nothing, BTW) when I again walk into this office for something.  “How you doing?” I ask.  But I’m almost out of the room before it dawns on me to add  “And thanks for calling me an idiot 10 minutes ago, appreciate it.”  We laugh. 

My point is, I was going to just come in, do my thing, and go back to my law library office without comment.  His previous ‘insult’ never phased me.

I say to my bookbinder in passing:

Amazing, how many times we slag each other off without taking offense.  It’s just taken in stride.” 

The bookbinder, who is a very polite, quiet man, smiles as he continues his binding and says, “Sometimes we could do with a little less slagging.”
being slagged off

“Think so?  You’re probably right….Nah.  Just bind your books.”

The bookbinder laughs.  For a polite and quiet man, he has a decidedly boisterous, explosive laugh.  Which I proceed to tell him.  But not in those words.

“Hey, nice laugh.  Keep it to yourself, please.” 

More boisterous laughter.  “I guess there’s no hope of the slagging lessening off!”


Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.


Dummies and Their Prison Libraries

(In which a Decrepit, Exhausted correctional Librarian gets schooled in the rudiments of the library racket….)

Right now, the Commonwealth is kicking people out the door via early retirement packages.  It’s moments like the following that proves I’m cuckoo not to take one.

Last night, I’m in the Lending Library with a new hire, Don, an intellectually curious man who is widely-read, he says, “…in every subject but biology, that’s my weak point.”  We are trying to locate Gary Zukov’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters but not having much luck.  Then talk drifts to CS Lewis and Screwtape, a book which, a few months back, I urge him to read (he does). Since Don’s a spiritual man, we wander a few shelving units to the left to find Lewis.

“By the way,” says I, “We just got this in today.  It’s categorized under 213, the Dewey designation for the creationism/humanism debate.”  It’s a book called Going Ape: Florida’s Battle Over Evolution in the Classroom.  I take the book off the shelf, and notice the “Advanced Copy” admonishment across the bottom of the cover. Usually we don’t accept these, for good reasons.  But this section numbers around 35 now, and as I have a few scholars who love wetting their waders in this stuff, this afternoon I have the cataloger/classifier process it.

As for what happens next, I must say in my defense that it has been a long week, both here and at home, so I discover that the phrase ‘uncorrected galley proof’ will not leap readily to the mind.  At that instant, our typewriter clerk heads toward the front library doors to walk down the hall & into the Law Library to retrieve typewriters for the night.  Pointing to the ‘Advanced copy’ phrase on the cover, I ask Don: “What are these things called?”

Typewriter clerk stops.  Our eyes meet.  “Books,” he offers brightly.

Don smiles.  It takes me a few seconds –doe-in-the-headlights style– but it starts to sink in.  “I thought you went to school for this?” Typewriter Clerk continues.  Now I’m laughing.  “We should write Prison Libraries for Dummies so you know these things.” Exit Typewriter Clerk.

Now I can’t stop laughing.

Don, a student in the current cycle of our humor-as-therapy course, laughs & says:  “Was that an example of destructive or constructive humor?”  I reply: “It’s an example of Mocking The Boss, and that’s very destructive, indeed,” I say, still laughing.

Perfect timing.  I wish you could’ve been here.  So that’s what these things are called!  We have thousands of them!  They’re everywhere!

sandwich with words

“A thank-you never hurt!” “But your FACE does!”

(In which the Librarian calls together his Intrepid Crew for the annual post-Inventory appreciation ceremony [no coffee or Danish allowed….])

2014_Certificate_CarlosAt right is a sampling of the certificate of appreciation we created last year.  This year’s looks the same, the only thing that changes is the text.  I just don’t feel like the aggravation of scanning right now.  Sorry.

Inventory 2015 goes as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances.  No one quits, or gets canned, or earns a disciplinary report, or gets lugged to Segregation.  There is plenty of incompetence, but incompetence tends only to hinder, it doesn’t stop us.  And it gives us plenty to laugh at.

Inventory takes five full days to account for a little less than 17,000 items, and we use no automation, only manpower & drawers of shelf list cards.

Everyone gets mocked & made fun of in these presentations, not a surprise, since that’s what they do to each other every working day.  During these five days, I pay close attention to what is done and said, recording the flubs, mistakes, & funny things people say during the process.  These flubs/mistakes/bon mots get recorded on the certificates.  The certificates are then distributed to the clerks while the Lending Library is closed.

Since refreshments aren’t allowed, we must make do with our wit.  Most of this wit is not suitable for family viewing.  Suffice to say that it is decidedly un-politically correct, which is the way we like it.

A sampling of this ‘wit’ is tthank-youhe title of this post, which comes about when one clerk moans about having to be in the library when where he wants to be is in the Yard.  Another clerk chastises him with “Y’know, getting a thank-you like this never hurts!”  To which yet another clerk replies, “No, but your face DOES!”

We pass out 11 certificates.  A good time is had by all.  Only one guy fails to show, so we read his in absentia & make fun of him anyway.

Clerks enjoy getting these thank-you’s, as they’re not often the recipient of appreciation.  I try to say “Thank you” each time someone does something for me.  Which means I say ‘Thank you” many many times a day, because clerks are always working & making library services what they are.  They are sick and tired of hearing me say “You’re only as good as the people you have,” because I say this several times each week.  But they’re people, and people thrive on praise, and if there’s one thing a manager must refrain from is taking your people for granted.  Show them you admire, respect, and appreciate all that they do.

The ceremony itself takes only about 15 minutes.  We read the certificate, everyone laughs at the guys’ expense, he comes up, we shake hands, and everyone applauds for him.  The rest of the time is spent talking shop & making more fun of each other.

as the people

After all certificates are distributed, one clerk asks me, “Now where’s YOURS?”  I gesture toward the other clerks and say:  “THIS is my thanks.”  A clerk on the other side of the room hears me and says, “I like that!”

Thanks, guys.

New Stuff: Or, “I haven’t seen ‘Wizard of Oz’ in 25 years!”

Amazing, the little things we free men take for granted that tend to grab the attention of the incarcerated.

Today, we receive 24 humor-as-therapy books, most of them purchased through Advanced Educational Products, an excellent source with a consistently high fill rate. Included in the shipment are books on stress management, and one on why it’s important as a parent to help nurture your child’s sense of humor. Good stuff.

We also received DVDs, Blu-Rays, & a comedy CD set. These will be for the ‘active listening’ and ‘active viewing’ part of the humor-as-therapy program. During active listening, we’ll listen to a comedian or a comedy bit, and stop it at certain points to analyze the type of humor used and its effects on the receiver (e.g., was anyone hurt by the joke). We’ll do the same thing with the DVDs.

Since most of my clerks are lifers, this is the 1st time they’re seeing Blu-Ray disks. One of them says to me: “Y’know how I knew which were Blu-Rays?” I figure he’s going to tell me some esoteric piece of information about something that he’s learned about the format, so I bite.


“Because their cases are blue!”

And EYE’m the idiot who hired him.

All of the films were chosen for their humor content. some titles include Fiddler on the Roof, Scrooged, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Wizard of Oz.

When I remove Oz from the box, my inter library loan clerk smiles broadly & says “HEY!  You got the Wizard!  I haven’t seen that movie in 25 years!”  Here I must pause and apologize to the world-weary and cynical, because hearing this breaks my heart.  The Wizard of Oz will always be one of my guilty pleasures, and I manage to see it once a year.  One day, to my delight, I discovered that one of our now-retired Lieutenants could recite whole scenes from this film, such is his mania & affection for it.  His favorite is when the Wizard ‘gives’ the Tin Man his heart.


The inter library loan clerk has signed up for the first cycle of the program, which begins on May 26th.  He will definitely get to see his movie.

Or, at least see sections of it.  Remember, we’re running a stress-reduction program using humor as our therapeutic vehicle.  We’re not permitted to entertain in our libraries, only to instruct & educate.  But if any entertainment value is gleaned by the participants, well, it’s all in the name of rehabilitation and re-integration.

“And remember, my sentimental friend: a heart is not judged by how much YOU love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

OPEN SEZ-ME: Inventory For Dummies

Inventory.  You have stuff.  You make sure it’s still there.  If the item is encased in something–like, say, a DVD–you open the case to make sure the DVD is still there.  Logical, sensible, and necessary.

But not for everyone, as it turns out.  But at least they tell on themselves.

I’m doing DVD & CD inventory with one of my lending library clerks, ostensibly to help him but primarily to keep a quality check on the process, as last year things got muddled and the DVDs/CDs had to be re-counted.

Today I find out why.

We have several multi-disk books-on-CD.  As the clerk watched me open the case to one of these & count individual disks he says:

“Oh!  There’s what I didn’t do last year!”

DVD case“What’s that?”

“Open the case! I was just counting the cases.”

“Please tell me you’re joking.”

“No!  I’m not!  That’s what I did wrong.  I wasn’t thinking about what was inside them, I just counted the case and moved on.”

“Without checking to see if the CD was there?  In other words, without actually inventorying the case?”

“It just didn’t occur to me, until I saw you do it.”

“No wonder they had to be re-counted.”


You can’t even get mad at this stuff, and that’s hard for me, because it’s in my nature.  But we got a good count, solved the problem for posterity and, as the clerk observed, moved on.

BTW — We have 131 DVDs, 13 Blu-Ray, and 187 CDs.

VHSAnd over 650 VHS tapes.  Ugh.  But they are in constant use, because of the prison’s gargantuan video system.  Each month we feed about 22 of these into the gaping maw of a VCP, and it does its thing for 30 days.

long-johnsBecause many of these players have no repeat programming, the inmate responsible for keeping this system running has to insert the tape, push PLAY, then strap a piece of elastic–from an old pair of long-johns–around the tape slot.  When the tape plays to the end & tries to eject, it hits the elastic & returns to the machine, to be played again.  And again.  And again.  Or, as the Brits say– ah-GAIN.

STYMIED, STULTIFIED, & STUPEFIED: Or, “What’s ‘alpha-numerical’ mean?”

As a library scientist, occasionally you take for granted a bedrock library science principle. Usually, to your detriment. Well, it can’t be helped.

Today, during inventory, an otherwise bright young man asks me the best approach to our 700-plus collection of Self-help books. “Well, the shelf list drawer for this material’s already in order. All that’s left is to put all the shelves in correct alpha-numerical order, and then match up the cards to the books.”


And the bright young man–who’s currently pursuing an undergraduate degree–asks: “And ‘alpha-numerical order would be–what, exactly?”

My fault. Of course it is! Assuming & presuming gets you results like this. It’s no way to run a railroad. I apologize to the youngster & define the term, to which he says “Oh! Of course! That was stupid!” I let him know that it was my stupidity of failing to cover basic terminology before inventory began that caused his confusion.

As we can see, even in correctional library management, ASS-U-ME applies.

Counting Them Beans: Or, “Can we PLEASE toss these cassettes out?”

Today we start inventory. Because Monday was a Massachusetts holiday called “Patriot’s Day, we get beat out of a day. Poor planning by Yours Truly. At least SOME planning was involved.

We use no portable scanners. Kooky, right? Instead, we take our shelf list drawers to each section of the library, the old-fashioned way. Well, it keeps them off the street. It’s the one time in the year when your staff comes together as a team. It’s an interesting dynamic, seeing inmates from different departments (e.g., bookbinding and cataloging) working toward a common goal. It’s not perfect–what human endeavor is?–and sometimes opinions as to how something should be done leads to flaring tempers. We are, after all, talking about cranky old men here.

But by weeks’ end, the beans’ll be counted accurately, diligently, and relatively peaceably. I’ve never lost an inmate in an inventory to death or dismemberment. I’ve never even had anyone quit. These are good things.


After bean-counting, I have 30 days in which to submit the inventory report. This report usually constitutes 30 pages, half of which comprise statistics from the population law library. Although we don’t need to tally books which have been replaced by the Lexis system, we still need to account for physical equipment, hundreds of legal forms, and what seems on certain days like millions upon millions of regulations, policies, and procedures.

Once more, into the breach….


Life’s little ironies: you never know when another one’ll spring up to fuddle, astonish, perplex, or annoy.

At present, we organize our Poetry, Drama, & Literature under the generic number ‘800.’ What separates the stuff is genre labels. It’s a book store arrangement, of sorts. But it beats holy hell out of the strict & kinda bizarre Dewey classification of all authors under country of origin. These days, many inmates cannot tell you Shakespeare’s country of origin. I say this because recently I quizzed several dozen men to see what the response would be. Over 60% of those quizzed couldn’t tell me. Many men answered “I have no idea.” So I’m glad for the bookstore approach.

But now my cataloger’s questioning it, because the new clerks don’t always pay close attention to genre labels, shelving stuff where it ain’t s’posed t’go & mixing Shakespeare with Robert Frost or Jane Austen.

knee jerk

So we’re out there, looking at the 800s, and the cataloger says: “We got 18 shelves of Literature, four shelves of Poetry, and four of Drama. Why don’t we just make new numbers for Poetry & Drama? Like 800.01 for the poetry books & 800.02 for the plays.” I told him, in my knee-jerk style, that I am tempted to knee him for being a jerk for proposing a solution that silly. Says I: “Get out the Index, like you normally do, and find the generic numbers for Poetry & Drama. We’ll use those.”

He does. He comes to me, book in hand, and a most aggressive grin on his face. The grin I’ve seen before. It’s one of a species of grins that tells me I need to wipe egg off my face. Sure enough: the generic numbers for Poetry & Drama, respectively, are 800.01 and 800.02.

Of course they are! How silly of me!

I’m still not going to use them.

A PLACE FOR EVERYTHING: OR, “Why is ‘God’s Middle Finger’ in Religion?”

We closed the Reference Room because of a project that should’ve been done decades ago. It has to do with sets. I like to keep sets together. It’s stupid, it’s anal -retentive, and it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans because, as any Librarian knows, patrons don’t use sets anyway. But we have over 20 sets in this Reference Room of ours and, for no good reason, we’ve kept them separate from the other material:

  • The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences
  • Gale Directory of Medicine
  • Gale Directory of Science
  • Encyclopedia of Physics
  • Encyclopedic Dictionary of American History
  • American Heritage Encyclopedia of Art and Artists
  • Encyclopedia of World Finance
  • History of Greek Philosophers
  • Encyclopedia of Africa
  • Encyclopedia of World Biography
  • Countries of the World
  • English Matters!
  • United States Government/Constitution Series
  • Durant’s History of Civilization
  • Enciclopedia Cumbre
  • Gran Enciclopedia Planeta
  • Ethics and Values
  • Columbia Encyclopedia of World History
  • Encyclopedia of World Events
  • Peoples of the World
  • Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Today, I announced to the cataloger and classifier “Today, gentlemen, we will re-work that room to include sets in their proper places.” Here are just some of the comments I heard:

  • “Thank God! You must’ve grown a brain overnight, huh?”
  • “It’s about time! Now I don’t have to go nuts when we do Inventory!”
  • “Think we’ll actually be able to FIND something now?”

For me, the most amusing thing that happened during the re-organization is that, as shelf space was created for a particular set, the clerks often couldn’t bear to split the books between shelves. They were bending over backward trying to keep the volumes together! I fanned the flames a bit:

“See! You’re as bad as EYE am! Not so easy, is it?”

“But they just don’t look right when the set’s busted up like that!” Which elicited this comment from the cataloging room:

“F*ck what they look like! Put’em where they belong!”

We started around 1:10PM. At 3PM, we unveiled our new Reference Room arrangement to an unsuspecting public. The most common overheard comment was:

“Now I can’t find anything!”

Conventional wisdom says you can’t please everyone. But folks who deal with people are a tad more realistic and see the thing in this light: You can’t please anyone.

But in this case, it’s not true. The cataloger and classifier are both well-pleased. And even my anal-retentive nature is sated. Now if I can just figure out how to make room for those last two volumes on the same shelf, I can keep this set together.

Well, I’ll just have to discard something….
reference sets