"Running the Books": Avi Steinberg talks about life as a prison librarian
Memoirist Avi Steinberg reflects on the humor, sadness, scariness, and "just utter strangeness" of working in a prison.
Avi Steinberg, a former yeshiva student and Harvard graduate, was working as a freelance obituary writer when he saw an ad for a full-time job with health benefits. The posting was for a prison librarian at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Massachusetts. Steinberg sent in his résumé, and then spent the next 2-1/2 years at “the Bay,” as both a librarian and a teacher of creative writing classes to inmates.
His new memoir, Running the Books, explores the role of the library in a prison and offers vividly drawn portraits of those who work and read there. There's the pimp who's writing his memoirs and the inmate who memorizes Shakespeare to get through solitary confinement. And then there's the former library patron who holds up Steinberg at knife point in a park, before recognizing him as “the book guy.”
Steinberg spoke with the Monitor via phone to discuss his path from yeshiva to prison.
Where did you get more of an education – Harvard or “the Bay”?
I think it was both. I think that it would have been a shame to do one without the other.... I came into the prison in many ways cognizant of the fact that this was another step in my education. It was a time when many of my friends were considering grad school, and were going to further their education in a variety of ways. I felt like I needed to do that in some way, too, but I didn't really want to go to a regular school and I wasn't really interested in the usual track. I did feel like something was missing in my education. I think it was both and I think it was the synergy between the two which I thought was, for me at least, a creative one.
And, by the way, I would add also yeshiva.... These places are very different from each other, and yet it's the tension that's created between these educational settings ... that I felt that, for me, was highly educational.
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The one thing that was the common thread between these three places – Harvard, yeshiva, and prison – is that I spent time in libraries in all three. And I felt like that, to me, made sense. It gave me a sort of a holding place, some kind of commonality between these three places. And libraries end up being similar types of places wherever they are, and so they were different enough but also similar enough that there was some kind of continuity.
What would you say is the biggest difference between a prison library and a public library?
There's a much more communal sense around the prison library. It's like a community center.… People come there, not just for books, not just to get resources, and not even just to sit, but really to gather, to see other people, to feel there's some kind of continuity in their day....