Books Through Bars: Ann Bognolo '15MS Connects the Library and Community
What I wanted to impart to my students is that not every person in jail is a bad person — not all of these people have done bad things. The Books Through Bars program was an opportunity to have these conversations.
Ann Bognolo '15MS, Library Director at the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and former President of the School of Library and Information Science Alumni Board, wanted her students to connect the library to the community. While enjoying a weekend afternoon at her favorite cafe, Bognolo saw a flyer for Great Falls Books Through Bars, an organization that sends free books and other reading material to prisoners.
“What I wanted to impart to my students is that not every person in jail is a bad person — not all of these people have done bad things,” says Bognolo. “The Books Through Bars program was an opportunity to have these conversations.”
Prior to COVID-19, Bognolo took a group of her 9th-grade students to the Great Falls Books Through Bars site in Turner Falls, MA. Students met organizers of the grassroots effort and heard more about why it started and its importance to members of the population who are currently incarcerated.
Through this program, I’m able to impart upon my students that education is power, and it can transform your life.
A critical aspect of this program is that all communication from and to prisoners is done by mail. Prisoners make their book requests through handwritten letters. They often take the opportunity to write about themselves and discuss what type of books they are looking for. As volunteers, the students read these handwritten letters and then take them to the “book room,” where they search numerous stacks in order to find the right book.
“It’s essentially readers advisory times 5,000,” says Bognolo. “The books are not cataloged in the traditional sense — they are grouped according to the genre. Volunteers are the ones navigating this large collection of donations and selecting texts.”
Bognolo’s students carefully selected a handful of books based on each individual’s request. Then they logged the name of the incarcerated, their ID numbers, what facility they are located in, and the book titles selected for them. Lastly, the students wrote handwritten letters to offer some connection and communication with the prisoners for whom they selected books.
Bognolo encouraged her students to have fun with it and hopefully make someone smile upon reading their letters. She noted, “In one on-site experience, students practiced organization, letter writing, readers advisory, and many other skills.”
Following their service event, students debriefed the experience with Bognolo. The group discussed how the volunteer work made them feel and what they learned. Many admitted to feeling uncomfortable, given the comparative privilege they experience in their own lives. Bognolo wants her students to experience an aspect of the community that is unfamiliar to them, in the hopes that they will grow as people. “Through this program, I’m able to impart upon my students that education is power, and it can transform your life.”
Due to COVID-19 and the inability to visit the Book Through Bars center to volunteer in the traditional sense, Bognolo’s students organized a paper bag drive in fall 2020. The organization relies heavily on paper bags to ship books nationwide at low costs. The program also accepts book and monetary donations.
“My goals as a librarian are not just about books and reading,” says Bognolo. “I want students to ask, ‘what else can the library do for the community, for patrons? The services public libraries offer have changed over time — it’s now a community hub. The library holds the key to growth, not only education but also maturity, because of the power of words and the power of people who are invested in those words.”