Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tips on how to make polite conversation about prison

November must have been a busy month because I have many friends with birthdays in July and August.  At these birthday parties lately, I have been meeting a lot of people I don't know, and the number one polite conversation starter is "So. What do you do?" I used to answer this query with "I'm a librarian" hoping that my companion would then fall for my topic change when I asked them what they did, but EVERYONE loves librarians so naturally they will want to know where you work. That, or one of your friends who is already in the know will gleefully cajole you to "Tell them WHERE!"
So tonight I present to you some helpful tips to make small talk with people you don't know about a topic that can be as controversial as religion and politics. Enjoy:
1. Just lead with the fact that you are a prison librarian. Even if the person you are talking to could have been or probably will be your patron at some point in time, like I said, everyone loves the Librarian so you most likely won't get punched in the face.
2. Have some witty anecdotes about prison life that are not too hardcore because after people hear what you do for a living the next question-statement will be "I bet you have some crazy stories!" And then they will want to hear some of them. This used to give me anxiety because it's like when you go to the bookstore knowing exactly what titles you want but the moment you get in there you completely forget all of them, but now I have some good go-tos like "I have to pass through 7 doors I can't control to get to work!" And "One time a dog peed on a whole row of books but it was ok because we had to weed them anyway."
3. Realize that if you are telling a hardcore prison anecdote, not everyone is going to want to hear it. At a conference some of my colleagues and I were talking about slock (weapon made from inserting a lock in a sock and smacking someone with it) assaults and some other non-prison librarians made a disgusted comment about how prison librarians are so hard to be around as they removed themselves from our table. So just be advised that what is a normal day for you might be too much for someone else to hear about.
4. Know what your patrons like to read. People who have no idea what goes on inside prison are always intrigued by what offenders are reading and they are surprised to hear their reading interests are the same as public library patrons.
5. Remember to tell them that 97% of your patrons will be getting out sometime, and impart that the prison library helps them to be better neighbors to everyone. It really helps bring the point home that not everyone in prison is locked up with the key thrown away. It helps to have some feel-good stories here as well.
6. Have a business card. I have found that in 98% of my conversations about what I do, people want to help by donating books. It is way more professional to say "Let me give you my card" than "Um, I guess I can write the address down on this bar napkin/airline ticket holder/your hand." My supervisor approved my business cards to be purchased using my library budget, but if yours is not as accommodating you can get some from the internet for very cheap.
7. Read Orange is the New Black, or watch a couple episodes on Netflix. I have noticed since that show appeared, many people have seen it and want to know how close it is to real life. You should watch or read it to have an educated opinion whether or not you agree with it. I am saving my thoughts on that topic for another blog.
Well, future prison librarians, I hope this list helps you as you become the hit of the cocktail party circuit with your Interesting job and witty conversation skills! Until next time!

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