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'Running The Books' In A Prison Library

When Avi Steinberg graduated from Harvard, he didn't know what to do next -- so he took a job as a prison librarian.

In Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Librarian,Steinberg shares stories of his time working at the Suffolk County House of Correction -- from the prisoner who dreamed of hosting a cooking show, Thug Sizzle, to the fragile prostitute who connected with Sylvia Plath.

The Suffolk facility houses both men and women and while the two groups have no contact, both populations use the same library.  That meant the facility also served as a kind of illicit post office, a place for prisoners of the opposite sex to leave messages for one another.

As a result, Steinberg would often find notes -- or "kites" -- tucked into books in the stacks.  It was his job to search those notes out and destroy them.

Steinberg tells NPR's Neal Conan that it was through those missives that he learned about the "soap operas" going on at the prison. He says with so many crossed messages and changing nicknames, the plots of the real-life dramas became quite complicated.

A self-described "tender-looking boy," Steinberg says prisoners took one look at him and assumed he couldn't control the library or its patrons. So controlling the flow of communication became essential to him establishing his authority.

"There's a little sheriff in every little corner of the prison," he says, "and people respect you for running a tight ship."

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