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Teacher-Turned-Librarian Uses Printed Page to Connect with Incarcerated Youths

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

As the number of incarcerated youths in the United States continues to grow, Marybeth Zeman ’09G is using her experience as a teacher and librarian to help young inmates cope with life on both sides of a local correctional facility’s walls.

“When I first started working at the jail, I noticed these young men had nothing to do,” she said. “They’re locked in a seven-by-10-foot cell for 19 hours a day. There’s no TV or desk. My first response, as a librarian, was to get them something to read.”

Zeman joined the Nassau County Correctional Center in 2009 as a transitional counselor and librarian in the school program for incarcerated youth. The program is run in conjunction with the East Meadow Public School District and offers youthful offenders the opportunity to earn a high school diploma or a GED. “I call myself the jailhouse librarian,” she said. “However, my primary responsibility is helping them transition to prison upstate or, hopefully, out of jail completely.”

Through donations from the school district and local librarians, Zeman built the jail’s collection from the ground up. “I worked with one of the chaplains to select books that had positive messages,” she said. “Their interests range from young adult books, like the Bluford High series, to more advanced titles, such as Brave New World.”

Zeman uses books as tools for connecting with the inmates. “Let’s face it, we don’t really have a lot in common,” she said. “When I wheel the book cart into a classroom and they ask me about a particular title, we instantly have something to talk about. I had no idea that the library would be such a valuable vehicle for my transitional counseling.”

For 20 years, Zeman was an ESL teacher at nearby W.T. Clarke High School in East Meadow.  She earned her Master of Library Science degree at St. John’s through the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, which supports the early career development of individuals who are likely to become leaders in library and information science.

At St. John’s, she became involved with outreach services through courses she took with Kevin Rioux, Ph.D., associate professor, library and information science. “Dr. Rioux emphasized the importance of community service and helping the disadvantaged,” she said. “It really cemented my decision to work with the culturally disadvantaged.”

Zeman’s book, Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian, chronicles the interactions she’s had with inmates throughout the years. “These kids inspired me so much that I felt the need to write about them,” she said of the book, which was honored with a 2014 National Indie Excellence Book Award. “They are caught in a system that is broken, and I wanted to share their stories with others.”

According to Zeman, one of the toughest parts of the job is not knowing what happens to the young men after they leave the facility. “Sometimes, I find out that they went on to become successful, productive members of society,” she said. “That is very gratifying to me.”