A Q&A with a prison librarian

In a new series, we explore the world of libraries and the librarians who work on the front line recommending books in celebration of National Libraries’ Day.

We speak to Ann Turner, who is librarian at HMP New Hall prison library, about the most borrowed author and the importance of literacy skills for women prisoners

What is special about your library?

The library is a really special place in the prison. When women visit the library they are not questioned or judged. They are actively encouraged to chat, to express themselves, to talk about books, to share what they have learnt from books and to share their recommended books with other readers.

Which books are the most borrowed?

Martina Cole is by far the prison library’s most borrowed author. Martina writes powerful novels about London’s gangster underworld and her fiction particularly features strong, female characters with which many of the women can easily identify. They talk about the characters in Martina’s books as if they are real people!

prison fence

What is your favourite anecdote from your time as librarian?

Martina Cole visited the prison in 2014 in her role as ambassador for The Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge (now known as Reading Ahead). She signed books for staff in the library and took part in a question-and-answer session in the prison’s gym. She also took questions from the audience and handed out certificates to over 80 women who had successfully completed the reading scheme. Martina received a standing ovation from the women and to this day they recall Martina’s visit with excitement!

Barnsley poet and radio and TV presenter Ian McMillan visited the library in 2015 to host a poetry workshop. This was great fun, and a poem was created by the women about an old librarian, which was later made into a bookmark.

What is the best part of being a librarian?

My favourite part of being a librarian is the satisfaction I get from experiencing women visiting the library for the first time, not being able to read, and then after engaging with the Shannon Trust’s Turning Pages reading scheme, reading Quick Reads, completing the Six Book Challenge and recording a Storybook Mums CD for their children, becoming confident and avid readers.

When women come to the library and tell me that they have never read a book before and now they love reading and watch less television, I feel proud of what we have achieved together.

Women often tell me that they would struggle to complete their prison sentences without the library. The library keeps them going and they don’t know what they would do without it.

With thanks to Ann Turner at HMP New Hall library and The Reading Agency. For more information on The Reading Agency visit readingagency.org.uk

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more