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The Unanswered Question of Dan Brown

Like many people, except for seeing a few episodes of Oz and Prison Break, I don’t know much about life in prison. And considering those are TV shows, I probably know less than nothing about life in prison.

Other than CIA libraries, the oddest libraries to me have always been prison libraries, and it looks like the oddest prison library at all is the one at Guantanamo Bay.

The prison at Guantanamo Bay currently has 41 inmates, and the library “has 35,000 volumes,” which is probably more volumes than a lot of public library locations around the country.

The library also has DVDs and video games, because if those 41 inmates aren’t entertained at all times, who knows what trouble could ensue?

Except the inmates can’t visit the library, and only those who “have been on good behavior can have items delivered to them.”

And like many prison libraries, it seems, the collection can’t just have anything. There might be dangerous books, which is the kind of talk that makes public librarians giddy to think about. Dangerous books!

According to an experienced prison librarian, “Many librarians would say that’s censorship. But in a prison, there are many things that need to be censored.”

Apparently, she’s one of those librarians who would say that’s censorship. Other librarians might just call it book selection.

On the other hand, that’s just speculation. There’s no indication in the article that the Gitmo library is like that at all. Maybe the library is so large because the prisoners get anything they want.

After all, wow “censored” could a library collection be that has fiction in multiple languages, history, philosophy, DVDs, and video games?

Two things aren’t surprising to be about prison libraries in general, though.

First is the lack of institutional importance to anyone except the librarian.

The prison librarian interviewed feels “that a library is so important in a prison,” but acknowledges that “Whether it’s a private or a public prison, it seems that the employees just don’t seem to view education as [being] as important for the inmates.”

That’s reflected in some of the budgets where the librarian “would get $100 a year to buy books.”

Gitmo seems to be an exception to that. The library has gone from 5,000 to 35,000 volumes in 9 years. You don’t get that on $100 a year. Why? We don’t know.

The other unsurprising thing is that in many prison libraries, “the collection was not based on what inmates wanted to read. Many of them, it was what the person who had worked there, what he or she liked to read.”

Maybe the only perk of being a prison librarian is that you at least get to order all the books you want, as long as you don’t want to read more than $100/year worth of books. It’s like being a librarian for people who don’t want to read much.

After all, what are the inmates going to do, complain? Who’d listen? The people who already don’t care about the library?

But, again, Gitmo seems to be the exception, unless the librarian really likes to read Harry Potter “translated into Farsi, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.”

Or, unless the librarian really wants to inculcate an appreciation of “young adult” literature in the prisoners. Who knows.

While it was an interesting glimpse into a general world most librarians are unfamiliar with, the article didn’t answer the question in the headline: why is there so much Dan Brown at Guantanamo Bay?

Considering the article doesn’t even try to directly answer the question, we could chalk up that headline to sloppy editing.

An editor skimmed the article, saw the weird sentence, “inmates have no shortage of titles by conspiracy auteur Dan Brown,” and went crazy. Why weird? “Auteur” in that context? Really?

The article never really gets to the bottom of anything, which is disappointing. What’s in the collection is known because a FOIA request released the library catalog.

Without more information, there’s not really a story besides pointing out that, as the experienced prison librarian basically said, “this is an unusual prison library.” Which would hardly have been surprising because it’s an unusual prison.

But what we don’t know is why there’s so much Dan Brown, or why there is anything else. Why did the collection increase so dramatically as the inmate population was decreasing, to the point where there are now 853 volumes per inmate?

We get an idea of prison libraries in general, but nothing at all about the Gitmo library other than its collection. And since we don’t know the relationship between the collection and the inmates, we can’t even speculate on how the collection was created.

We find there are lots of videos on monuments. Is that because there was a sale on monuments videos? The librarian was obsessed? Inmates enjoyed watching them and dreaming of blowing them up? We have no idea.

There was the tease of journalism about what might be the oddest prison library in the world, with little to show for it.

Maybe next time, someone could use the Freedom of Information Act to request the collection development statement along with the catalog. Then maybe we can get some real answers, because I’m curious why there’s so much Dan Brown in the Gitmo prison library.

Until then I can only assume that some person or persons at the Gitmo prison have the same mediocre reading taste as the general American public. Or maybe it’s just a more humane method of torture than waterboarding. Again, we can’t know.


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  1. Interesting to get stats on inmate preferences and compare with tastes of average population.

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