Get To Know CSL: Diane Walden on Institutional Library Development

From March through June of 2018, the Colorado State Library’s #GetToKnowCSL social media campaign ran to give a little insight about the people of our organization. Almost 20 of our staff were briefly profiled in that campaign. Now, #GetToKnowCSL is back, but this time we’re digging a little deeper. In a series of interviews, we are finding out about how the people of CSL derive meaning from their work, as well as some of the challenges and successes they have had. 

First up is Diane Walden. Diane heads the Institutional Library Development (ILD) unit of the State Library. A corrections librarian since 1994, Diane has been recognized with Library Journal’s Mover & Shaker award (2011), as well as ASCLA’s Leadership & Professional Achievement Award (2011) “for her exemplary leadership and achievements at the Colorado State Library and at the Florida Department of Corrections in delivering high quality consulting and statewide library services for offenders.”

Diane Walden

Mike: Tell me about your beginnings as a corrections librarian.

Diane: I am one of two people that I know of who got into this on purpose, who really wanted to work with prisoners. I worked for a small geotechnical engineering firm in their corporate library while I was getting my bachelor’s degree, and I can remember one of the VP’s saying to me, “Why would you want to do that? You’re throwing your life away.” And I did it anyway. It took me awhile, because I was listening to all these people who were telling me I shouldn’t do this. When I went to do my masters in library science, my focus was in medical librarianship – and that was my next job, I became a medical librarian. And I hated it. I had the opportunity to move to a state with a huge correctional system. And, because I went to school late, I thought I could probably move up fast there. So that’s what I did. And I loved it. I shouldn’t have listened to the people who were telling me “that’s not what you want to do.”

M: How did you know you wanted to work with prisoners?

D: I always liked working with the underdogs. Also, trying to help people see the bigger picture about themselves. You are not your crime. You are not the worst thing you ever did.

M: Starting out, how was it different to what you imagined?

D: It was really hard to work in a prison library – and this is obvious, but we don’t usually talk about it – but the library is not a prison’s first mission – it’s usually about the fiftieth. I didn’t expect it to be so hard to get permission to do things. Everything is usually looked at as an escape risk – or what harm can come from this? I remember one of my first programs ever was story time for grownups, and I literally read aloud just as you would for little kids, and I got blankets from the laundry and threw them on the floor, and I got in all kinds of trouble for allowing them to sit on the floor.

M: You’re kidding.

D: In no place else would this be a big deal. But the program was successful, by about the third program, even officers were coming in to listen, because it was so relaxing.

M: Were they low risk prisoners?

D: No. My first prison was close custody, with a large number of murderers and sex offenders. When you say low risk, you might be thinking of their crime or flight risk, but prisoners aren’t always divided the way we think they may be. Corrections officials consider many things when deciding where each prisoner should be housed, but it’s important to know that may not be as dependent on the crime they did, as who they have become while incarcerated.

M: How do you feel when interacting with someone convicted of a particularly horrible crime?

D: I don’t usually know what the people have done. They are there to use the library. So that’s where we start from. There are people who volunteer their crimes to staff or each other, but it’s nothing I ever ask. I have access to all the files if I work in the prison library, so I can go look it up any time I want to, but it doesn’t really matter. They are all felons.

M: Do you work with federal prisons, or just state?

D: State. My team by statute is only in service of Colorado state institutions. Our main focus has been state prisons, but we also have ten libraries in the Division of Youth Services, also mental health institutes, nursing homes, and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. We’ve also been reaching out to the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community, which is a residential environment for people who are fighting addiction and are homeless. 40 libraries in total – and 22 of those libraries are Department of Correction.

M: What are your goals with the prison population?

D: As Colorado citizens paying for prisoners, our goal needs to be that when they get out they never go back in, because it’s expensive to keep people in prison. Anything we can do to make their transition permanent – that’s what we want to focus on, whatever that looks like. So that could be supporting somebody getting their GED, or somebody getting their ASE certification to be a mechanic, it could be somebody who needs to find their family. That’s what we do, we support the facility so that the offender never comes back when they leave.

M: Are there any case studies about library services and recidivism?

D: I’m currently involved in planning a research study to gather data on the impact of prison libraries because it doesn’t exist. There are studies that document what’s wrong with prison libraries but even they aren’t based on data that indicates what the goal is. CDOC has a new Director looking for ways to decrease recidivism, but at the same time staff are prevented by rule from keeping in touch with people who were released.

M: So gathering data on what works is…?

D: Data is being collected on failures, but not successes.

M: Is it problematic, not having that data?

D: I think historically, that’s all that human services and corrections have collected. There should be a big focus on recidivism – what’s working? Instead of just numbers of people who came back within three years – why didn’t they come back? We need to collect that. The PRISM Planning grant I got along with two other groups will look into what CDOC libraries are doing right. We’re half way through it, so we’ll see.

M: Another challenge, I imagine, is that when prisoners are released they go right back to the place they committed the crimes that put them away.

D: That’s where their family is. That’s where their support system is. Unfortunately, it’s where their downfall is also. I used to tell my patrons in my first year or two being a librarian, “can you go anywhere but home?” Because some of them were afraid to go home. Librarians see a lot of change when there are kids involved. Sometimes, when the kids reach out, the parent sees themselves as the role model. That can be the line. The most consistent comment in twenty-odd years of doing this about what led someone to change is that: “I don’t want my kid to live like this.”

M: Which reminds me of one of the programs your unit runs: Read to the Children. Can you tell me about that?

D: Our team provides the materials and best practices, and the DOC library provides additional materials and supplies so that a parent in prison can do a video recording of themselves reading a book, and send their recording and the book to their child. We’re investigating ways to improve the program, including partnering with local public libraries to deliver the recording and book, which would invite the caregiver to take advantage of their local branch.

M: Good idea!

D: We also hope in the future, instead of sending home DVDs, to save them in the cloud. A lot of people don’t have DVD players anymore.  Wouldn’t it be so much cooler to hand Junior a phone and say, “here, Daddy recorded a book for you.”

M: To use probably an overused word, you seem passionate about what you do.

D: It’s used a lot by almost all correctional librarians. But, yeah – way, way passionate. It’s a hard job. You have to really like what you’re doing. We say it about ourselves and people say it about us.

M: Does it take a certain type to do the work you do in particular, as opposed to more general librarianship?

D: That’s a good question. I think it takes a certain type of person to work at this level, and to be a correctional librarian – and maybe that person is open minded and creative. Looking for ways to get the job done.

M: Are there a lot of preconceived notions about what you do?

D: Probably, because there’s preconceived notions about who prisoners are. One of my favorite complements ever is “you don’t act like a librarian.”

M: Why do people choose to become librarians?

D: I can only really answer for me: it’s people, working with people. Making lives better. Sometimes just making the day better for someone. Service. Giving back. This is going to sound so corny, but, there’s something about the ability to change the world one person at the time. And those actual experiences are few and far between; you don’t make a change every day, and that’s okay…I do know I saved somebody’s life. He was a clerk for me at my first library job in Florida. After he was released, he went back to school and created a software product for realtors. He told me about all the things he had done and how it all started with me believing in him while he worked for the prison library. He’d never been on a computer until I made him use the computer for library work.

M: That must feel very satisfying.

D: Yes, it does. I once went to a training with other prison librarians, and the trainer was a storyteller, and as part of the discussion he found out where these folks all worked, and he just stopped. And he was silent for a few seconds and he was scanning their faces and he said, “I don’t know how you do what you do. You are in the business of throwing a pebble into a pond and never knowing whether the ripple hits the shore.” And that quote has always stayed with me, because we don’t know whether the ripple hit the shore, we don’t know if this user that we made a difference with maybe reached out to someone else. But that’s okay. We’re usually at peace with that, and we just have faith that we are making the change.