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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

New Technologies - New Possibilities? A Virtual Library in a Prison Environment in the Netherlands; a Discussion.

Frances E. Kaiser, National Agency of Correctional Institutions. Staff member Management Support Bureau, The Hague, Netherlands



My presentation is desired to motivate a discussion about electronic databases in prisons. I think it is worthwhile to try to develop a prison librarians consensus about this issue. I am afraid if we don't do it, other people in the prison service will. My presentation illustrates why...

A short review
If I can travel back in time for a moment,the library service to prisoners in Holland was at that time a very poor service, so very, very poor that even the prison authorities realized that it wa s really time to do something about it (and that may considered to be a wonder). After the second world war many reports were written about bad library conditions. Although there were some improvemen ts, it was not until the eighties that the authorities actuality took action to do something about it. This way perhaps have been because in the seventies and the eighties, there was still a belief i n rehabilitation of prisoners. The general public was more supportive of rehabilitation programmes such as: libraries, education, art-classes, sport and qualifies labour facilities. Those years in Ho lland were not characterized by building prisons, but by closing them. There was no belief in long sentences.

Changes in the prison library service
In this period the Ministry of Justice hired a library adviser from the Dutch Centre for Public Libraries and Literature to reorganize and modernize the library service in their correctional inst itutes. It was me they hired and it has been my involvement (and my passion) ever since. I believe strongly in the power of reading; fiction, non-fiction, reference, comics, magazines etc. Promotion of reading is an important social issue and certainly more so among the prison population. Through literature you can reach people who are not so easy to reach. You can give people a view into other worlds of which they perhaps had no prior awareness. The IFLA "Guidelines for Library Service to prisoners" (1992) state: "The prison library is a substitute for the library 'at home' and consequent ly, it reaches nearly every prisoner. This is one good reason why it should be developed into one of the best libraries! "
To develop this kind of library work means that you need the most dedicated and professional librarians. The principle reward is not excellent payment, although that's unfortunate, but the feeling th at this library service is very real and essential. Only dedicated and professional people would choose this undertaking.

A Development
In the Eighties, Dutch prisons contained only about 3000 prisoners, distributed among some 30 correctional institutes; these were small institutions with an average population of about 100 prison ers. They had no proper libraries, with materials limited to old books of which few were in any foreign language, no non-fiction. Not even reference books, comics, periodicals or newspapers were avai lable. In general, there was no free access for the prisoners to printed matter and there were certainly no professional librarians to support the prisoners in their reading needs. Reading promotion was not at all an issue in prisons, and only just becoming one in society at large. Nevertheless the libraries were, as everywhere in the world, eagerly used by the prisoners. The libraries lent in 1 981 200 books per prisoner, this was 6 times more than the lending in the public library per user in the same year.
Reading was, is, and always will be popular in prison. This applied in the seventies, the eighties, presently, and will be increasingly popular in the next century, all over the world. I am sure that everyone in this audience would agree. Prison inmates mostly do not come from a background were reading was encouraged and therefore most of the inmates are not used to reading books. Many of the in mates entered a library for the first time in their life, while in prison, having often never read a book before.


The start
The beginning of automation in Prison Educational Departments was marked by a conference in 1987 for librarians, educational officers and teachers "The computer and prison education". The theme i n the prison environment seemed to be very futuristic. Computers were not common in the prisons and certainly not in the educational departments. Presentations and workshops focussed on many aspects of automation. The key aspect for many at the conference was the practical workshops concerning library automation, the building and use of electronic databases, the use of computers in education, a nd what computer programs could be implemented. The participants had full opportunity to experiment with programmes, computers and develop their enthousiasm. However after the evaluation, it became c lear that although the conference was highly appreciated, participants thought that the theme was too futuristic, too far from the reality, and perhaps too far of their patch. Automation in education areas was certainly not a priority in the prison service, and it was difficult to convince the correctional authorities of the potential value of computers in the field of prison education.

Working Group on library automation
A little group of librarians decided some years later to develop a strategy for library automation, and formed a working group. Their goal was to create an authoratative forum to discuss automati on of the prison libraries. They decided that it was imperative that every Dutch prison library maintained compatible between library computer programs, and databases, unlike their public libraries c ounterparts. The librarians wanted to ensure future possibilities for close cooperation. This could particularly benefit the development of the network of foreign literature, for very special prison collections, and for exchange of reference materials in many languages. Shared cataloguing was also an important future goal. Automation could also make the library service in the prison and the lib rary administration more effective. Performance indicators for the systems administration could be easily derived and automatically provide relevant input for the management information systems of bo th the library and the prison service.

Because the prison authorities originally did not give any support to the automation process, the librarians took the initiative and over a period of two years, developed both a national strategy abo ut and became a focal point for, library automation within the prisons. Confidence in the findings of the working group was so thoroughly sufficient, that all prison librarians followed their recomme ndations.
Their most important activities is summarised as follows:

  1. Definition of purpose and scope for a library automation programm. Clear instructions were tailor-written for librarians were written to help them drive the application.
  2. Oral instruction was given to all librarians at their workplace.
  3. Advice on how to start the automation process in one's own library
  4. Practical materials were developed (like special bar code programs for the lending administration, a work manual etc.).
  5. Courses were designed and given by the librarians from the working group to all the other librarians.
  6. A helpdesk for the librarians was realized (by the librarians from the working group).
  7. Meetings and conferences about library automatization were organized.
  8. Students of the Library schools were commissed, to develop instruction materials for the prison libraries. Under the supervision of the Library Schools, qualified reports were adressed:
Today, we are fortunate to be able to state that every library in the Dutch prison is working with the same library program. Automation is for some people very exiting, and for others more or less a disaster, but most it is somewhere in between. It was therefore very important that there was enough mutual support to make this project a success. Much attention was paid to helping each other.
All this extra work by the working group (comprising 4 librarians and the national adviser) was done completely on a voluntary base. Their efforts were very successful; all libraries are in some phas e of automation. Most libraries now have an electronic database and are working on the automation of their administrative procedures. The prisoners like to make use of electronic databases so much so that the card catalogue is seldom used.

Connections with external databases (outside the prison)
Although the prison authorities did not actively support the library automation they admired the professionalism way of the project organisation and structure.
But new questions come up: shared cataloguing and a joint database accessible for all the prisoners for example. To realize these goals, it will be necessary to have modem inter-connections, raising important security implications. We must guarantee, that by designing safeguards prisoners won't misuse the fawlity. We have yet to have a formal discussion within our prison system about the dangers of modem connections in facilities accesible for prisoners.
The necessity to have modem connections between prison libraries and with libraries in the outside world was recognized by the prison authorities. They have consequently acknowledged that the librari es needed more support and are conducting investigations into how to resolve the security issue. Custodianship rests with the Automation Support Organisation of the National Agency of Correctional In stitutes.

Practical Aspects
Much of the library automation data reside on the institutions' computer network. The same contains many other data which are not meant for prisoners' eyes. The safety of this situation and the p rotection of the systme are subject of investigation.
Modem connections between the prison libraries are not yet in place, but there are many modem connections between the correctional institutions and electronic databases in the outside world libraries such as public, provincial and university libraries. In about thirty percent of the prison libraries you can now find such connections.
Until now there has been no misuse, but how can this be guaranteed to continue?

Another issue fort rising to the fore is the fast growth of the use of media such as CD-Rom and CD-I in the libraries. These developments increase possibilities for the prisoners for reference and ed ucation. Although this is a great advantage, we must be realistic this is only true for a small percentage of the prisoners. For the prisoner who does not understand either the systems or the compute rprogram, or for those prisoners who cannot write or read properly (and those are many!) it adds nothing to their possibilities. For the more educated prisoner, it is of course a fantastic possibilit y to realise one's own choice of literature, especially that which is not actually in the collection of the prison.
For the general library user, we must see this kind of facility as an additional benefit to supplement rather than replace the personal help of the librarian.
Automated systems are, however, a very useful reference tool for the librarian at least and that is important for all the readers who depend on the librarian. The librarian should be the focal point in the use of electronic databases.


Library automation can be a real benefit for the readers in the prison, but there is also another side. The possible risks are in fact the reason why I wanted to give this presentation. Prison librar ians always want the best for their readers and in their enthusiasm to endeavour for better library conditions in the prison it is possible to overlook the hazards. There are risks on a diversity of levels:

These risks are a matter of security which I referred to in the last chapter, and, should obviously be solved in close disussion with the prison authorities.

The other risks are not a risk caused by the prisoners but a risk for the prisoners.
I will give you some examples about which harm can be done by automated facilities. Not only, have librarians thought about the possibilities of the library automation. but also the management and ot her employees in the prisons. However the management in a prison can have totally different interests than the librarian. In Holland, the prison authorities are obliged to realize a library facility for every prisoner, but the law does not adequately describe this. The relevant library regulation date from 1953 when virtual libraries were not an issue, so it is logical that there is nothing in t he guidelines addressing the situation.

The development of electronic databases and CD-Rom facilities caused in our Prison Service next to the advantages a lot of headache! The problem is that Some prison directors think that looking into an electronic database is a good (or good enough) alternative for a real library. They do not see the necessity of seeing/ feeling a book before selecting it. They do not realize that the library it self (accomodation and collection) is something very precious and special to the prisoners. In two correctional institutions we have the unpleasant situation that prisoners are actually limited to a computer to select their books (and other materials). In one case, there is not even a library in the prison. These situations are described below.


Library service in maximum security prisons and departments
Prisoners in a maximum security situation are not new, but the scale of the problems posed by an explosion of the numbers of prisoners is a new challenge. In such a situation, a prisoner cherises the ir right to a library service. Often it is one of the few activities which are still offered to them.
In the past, these prisoners, were often, but not always, allowed to go to the library to make a choice from the library collection, and as a matter of fact that would be their only privilage. But, since librarians do not run the prison, on many occasions they are denied access.
As new maximum security systems were developed, and it was no longer always possible for such prisoners to go to the library. The librarians went once a week to visit the prisoners, interviewed them, and together they decided which books the prisoners wanted to read, the librarian subsequently doing his utmost to meet the needs of the prisoners.
After several aggressive and dangerous situations during which prison personnel were threatened and taken hostage by prisoners in maximum security areas, a new system for meeting the the maximum secu rity needs was developed. High risk prisoners are now in a single national maximum security prison. They are no longer allowed contact with personnel other than the special trained prison officers, and not, for instance, with librarians, teachers, art teachers, etc. The librarian is not even permitted to go into the building to talk behind safety glass with the prisoners; the prisoners are redu ced to making written requests for the library. To be able to make a selection of titles they have an electronic database (off-line) containing the available library collection of the prison. That, they actually have a electronic database is of course a help, but we have to realize that this database is mostly filled with titles of Dutch books whereas the maximum security department contains ma ny prisoners whose first language is other than Dutch. Most computer commands are also in Dutch, and therefore not readily understandable to foreigners. Furthermore you also have to be able to spell the words properly, otherwise the database will not give any result during searches for titles, subjects or authors. In practice, it seems that the prisoners hardly use this database, because they ca nnot handle it unaccompanied. The distant library receives letters from the prisoners in which they describe their wishes. The librarians are dissatisfied with the level of service they can give (or rather cannot give). The prison management, however, thinks that they have created a model facility and are near to point this out. However the facility is inadequate for the users and cannot therefo re be described as a model. In times prior to automatization, the prison librarians were always allowed to talk with each prisoner. It is therefore apparent that for the most maximum se curity prisoners the automatization process also has disadvantages rather than only improvements.

The virtual branch library of the public library in a prison
At last, I will come to the reality of the virtual library. In on of the prisons there is no real library, there are no books, just computers. The Netherlands had, and still has a big prison buil ding programme. The prison capacity has grown in ten years from 3000 to 12.000 places. In every new prison there is also a good and up-to date library. Since 1990, in new or renovated prisons (with p rison populations of 250 - 350 prisoners) about 25 new libraries have been created, and another 5 libraries will follow before the end of 1996. These libraries have, on average, collections of about 5000 - 10.000 items (books, reference, comics, music, audiovisual materials, courses, magazines, papers, documention etc.). In addition, they provide with professional librarians, free access for nea rly all the prisoners, proper library accommodations with adequate reading/ study facilities, electronic databases and some have CD-Rom and/or CD-I.

One of the newest prisons ( opened in June 1995) has a capacity of 388 prisoners of which at least half of the population will read and speak other languages than Dutch. Typically 45 different langua ges are expected. This prison will have in future no real library within its prison walls. That's really new. Although a complete plan was made for the development of a library in this prison, the pr ison staff decided to ask a public library to make an alternative plan for the library service in the prison. One would expect that it would be wise also to have the opinion of a independent professi onal institute.

However the management of this prison had a problem. They were unable to design a program in which each prisoner had time to go the library at least once a week, despite the fact that a prisoners' ri ght is recorded in the National Prison Act.
The prison has only one library facility which cannot accomodate groups larger than 12 prisoners, in addition to a considerable walking distance. With nearly 400 prisoners, the programming is a sign ificant problem.
The public library found a solution for this problem. Their solution is not to make a library in the prison. They developed a plan for the prison for a library service, which did not have such time tabling constraints. The plan of the public library was attractive enough for the management to accept. It was cheaper than a library within the walls and the problems about the routing were so lved.

Framework of the library service offered by the public library
The public library suggested the provision of a branch library of the public library within the prison. This branch library would have no books. In the recreation room of each cellblock (with 48 cell s) they will install a computer with a CD-Rom. On this CD-Rom they will scan the bookcovers of 1000 Dutch novels (the 1000 most popular novel titles). The prisoners can then order books from the libr arians of the public library, who will come weekly to the prison to take the orders and deliver books. They can order, in addition to the novels, other less popular novels, non-fiction books, books i n other languages, educational materials etc. etc. However, for these materials, they have no reference tools to help them to make a selection because the modem-connection with the electronic databa se (in the prison) of the public library is only available for the librarians and not for the prisoners.
And the public library will not offer any reference material (law materials, encyclopedias, dictionaries etc. and no comic books, music or whatsoever). The prison itself is responsable for that, but there are in house no librarians available to build up these collections. Such collections must be located in each cellblock of 48 cells. The only librarians who enter the prison are those of the pub lic library.

The public library, mistakenly thinks that this is a adequate library facility for the prisoners. The director of the public library even talks about this development (for whatever reason) as "a sile nt revolution".
For the prisoners this development means:

Is automation therefore a benefit for the library service in the prison or a danger?
The above described developments are a warning. Is it really acceptable that a public library can sell such a kind of library service to a prison as a good library service and is it really acceptable that our prison service can accept it as such? Neither appears to be the case. The prison authorities are accountable for this unsatisfactory situation, inexperienced in this area which ultimately r esulted from hiring a professional organisation to to organize their library service.
Prisoners are totally dependant on the library for their reading and selfstudy needs. They are not allowed to bring books into the prison, nor can their visitors bring books or magazines for them. Al l they have is the prison library.

The library supposed to be regulated by law, reason why each institution has a library in the first place. The library service falls under the guidelines developed by the IFLA and those of the Dutch National Agency of Correctional Institutions, the recommendations adressed by the European Council, the European Prison Rules and the recommendations of the United Nations and the United Nations Pris on Rules. Despite the foregoing, nobody is taking initiative in this situation which will ultimately mean that the prison (with the help of the city public library) will have no real library.
It is even doubtful if the prisoners will complain. They will get books and that this is a very poor system will perhaps not be very obvious to them. Many of them have never been in a library, do not even know what a library is. We could hope that more experienced prisoners who have been in other prisons will recognize the situation and officially complain. That, however, should not be the motiv ation for change in a system designed to rehabilitate inmates.

It is the first prison in Holland with such a system, but will it be the last? I hope so, but I cannot be sure. Public opinion about prisoners is not like it was in the Eighties. The prevailing attit ude is that prisoners cost society too much, should have less facilities, do more factory work and less education.
Therein lies the explanation of the question mark in title of this paper: New technologies - New opportunities? Automation can give to the prisoners a lot of new opportunities but.....in the last tw o examples we can see than it can also can work out to the contrary.


I want to warn both enthusiastic prison librarians and their counterparts of the public libraries. The present course is not necessarily the right course; we should work together for an appropriate l ibrary service for everybody, including prisoners. It appears immoral to profitable run a prison library service at the expense of a disadvantaged, and literally captive, consumer. Our moral and soci al obligations should not be abandoned to simply cut (already marginal) costs.
I hope you will have many questions and that we can now throw open this for discussion. For prisoners this is a serious negative development. For the prison authorities it is a cheap solution, for th e public library it means profit. That prisoners are not very popular in society those days only makes the situation more critical.

Frances Kaiser
Management Support Bureau
National Agency of Correctional Institutions