An Unexpected Choice Can Be the Right Career Fit

May 23, 2018

Danielle Zoller ’12MS shares her path to becoming a jail librarian.

Danielle ZollerDanielle Zoller is a Jail Librarian for the D.C. Public Library. She’s been working in correctional libraries for the past 6 years. She received her BA in English literature from Roger Williams University and her MS in library science from Simmons.

What led you to this career path?

I didn’t plan on becoming a Jail Librarian. I actually didn’t know much about correctional libraries at all. After graduating from Simmons School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), I began working in the technical services department at a law firm library. I quickly realized that being “behind-the-scenes” of a library wasn’t for me, so I began looking for new jobs. I saw that the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now CoreCivic) was looking for a Law Librarian at the D.C. Jail, so I applied. Luckily, I got the job and it turned out to be a great fit. I really enjoy working with an underserved population and getting the opportunity to connect with people that I normally wouldn’t. After a few years with CCA, I began working as the Jail Librarian for the D.C. Public Library (DCPL).

How do you gauge the services/books inmates at the different units will require?

When we first started providing public library services in the D.C. Jail, we administered a survey to inmates to gauge their reading interests. DCPL’s Collections Department used the results from that survey to begin building the collection. Now, we continue to purchase new materials based off of inmate requests, but also from the observations and interactions that DCPL staff have with inmates.   Jail Library

What kind of technology is available to inmates?

Through the Jail’s Law Library, inmates have access to computers that are equipped with Microsoft Word and a Lexis Nexis hard drive. There is no internet connection, as this is prohibited. Through DCPL, we’ve recently begun piloting a Playaway program with a small group of inmates. Playaways are pre-loaded portable media players. They’re great for institutions because they require no downloads, no set-up time and no wifi.

Are there certain titles that are not allowed to circulate?

The Department of Corrections has a prohibited items policy that we follow. The main thing is that all books must be paperback. Content-wise, books are prohibited if they glorify violence, drugs and gang-relations, or contain nudity and sexually explicit subject matter.

How has the service changed over the last four years?

The D.C. Jail operates two buildings, the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF) and the Central Detention Facility (CDF). In the beginning we were providing mobile book cart services at CDF. We now operate a walk-in library at CTF. Inmates housed in CTF are able to come down to the library once a week and browse the collection, talk with library staff, check-out books, etc. We still operate the mobile book cart at CDF on a weekly basis. We’ve also increased the programs that we offer to inmates. We’ve been able to host book clubs, author talks, summer reading, poetry workshops and more.

What kind of support do you offer inmates upon release?

When inmates are being released from the facility back into the community they are given the opportunity to sign-up for a DCPL library card. If they're interested, they fill out an application and are immediately given a library card and a DCPL brochure which outlines the services our branches offer—access to computers, employment & education support, legal services and family programs—as well as a map of DCPL locations.

My advice for those considering correctional librarianship: you need to be extremely flexible and patient. You often don’t have control to walk around the institution freely. You’re always waiting for security staff to unlock a door or control an elevator for you. Safety and security are always the top priority, meaning at times programs, including library services, have to be put on hold if the institution has a situation to deal with. Also, the profession can feel isolating at times—so make sure you stay connected with other librarians either through your public library system or ALA prison listservs!


Photos courtesy of Danielle Zoller '12MS.