WCU research into jail book collections sparks service project


Part of what has compelled avid readers and librarians to help expand and improve libraries at Western North Carolina jails have been photos of the book collections – some so small that they fit on a single book cart. “If you were in jail and you were innocent, this is the book collection you would have,” said Jill Ellern, systems librarian at Hunter Library, commenting about what she says when she shares the jail library photos with others. “I think that really resonates with people who believe in the value of reading.”

Jill Ellern and Liz Gregg

From left, Jill Ellern, systems librarian at WCU’s Hunter Library, and Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Public Library, deliver and sort books for the library at the Macon County Detention Center.

The jail library improvement project developed after Ellern and criminal justice faculty member Karen Mason researched library services in rural WNC jails. The passionate readers had heard stories of friends who worked as jailers that left them wondering: What would it be like to be incarcerated? Would they have more time to read? If they did, would being confined with little to do be so bad? “However, we found that the reality is not what you might imagine,” said Ellern. “There are very limited reading options.”

Ellern and Mason met with jail administrators in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson and Macon counties over several months to learn about their library services and policies, to examine their book collections and to look for ways they could help the detention centers provide quality library services. Jail administrators shared that library services are important in giving inmates something productive to do, and they noted that happier inmates contribute to a safer environment. However, they also described the enormous challenges jails face in providing even rudimentary library services, said Ellern. The facilities lack not only funding to purchase materials but also space for books.

Mason noted that most of the collections could be described as a combination of religious, Western and romance titles, and Ellern said she was surprised not to recognize many titles among the paperbacks. The books also were very used and in various stages of disrepair. “This is not your standard library collection,” said Ellern. “These items are used up and must be continually refreshed.”

Now, Ellern and Liz Gregg, assistant county librarian at Jackson County Public Library, part of the Fontana Regional Library system, are working together to secure books and financial donations to support libraries within detention centers in Macon and Jackson counties. They are seeking paperback materials in good condition that are appropriate for different reading levels, languages and ethnicities and that support education, work and treatment programs. The most pressing needs are for popular fiction; Westerns; educational materials for basic math, science, GED preparation or continuing education; legal forms and self-help titles, said Gregg.

Also, Ellern purchased copies of sets of law books to donate to the two institutions that had room to accommodate them. In addition, three students from WCU’s Ripple Effect learning community, which is centered on exploring how small acts and service perpetuate social change, are assisting with securing books and documenting the collections and book wish lists – books that could prove uplifting to others. “That’s why I got into library science in the first place – to see it change people’s lives,” said Ellern.

To learn more about donating books or money to the jail library effort, contact Gregg at 828.586.2016 or egregg@fontanalib.org.