#citylis Student Perspectives: Neil Barclay on Working in a Prison Library

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by Neil Barclay, #citylis Library Science student and Librarian and Learning Skills Lead at HMP Thameside.

#citylis Library Science student Neil Barclay, Librarian and Learning Skills Lead at the Library at HMP Thameside

#citylis Library Science student Neil Barclay, Librarian and Learning Skills Lead at the Library at HMP Thameside


The Library at HMP Thameside, where I have been the Librarian and Learning Skills Lead for two years, offers prisoners a variety of literature in a welcoming environment and encourages them to participate in a wide variety of activities which can aid their rehabilitation and literacy development. Some of these initiatives are described below:

  • The Six Book Challenge, which challenges prisoners to read six pieces – ranging from books to newspaper articles – and review them before receiving a prize in the form of a mini dictionary (amongst other incentives). The mini dictionary serves many as a useful tool in developing their reading and writing skills.
  • The Shannon Trust Reading Plan, where a group of trained prison mentors assist prisoners struggling with their literacy needs in twenty-minute sessions. When the learners have grasped a level of understanding, they are invited to join a reading group hosted by the company Prisoner Reading Groups.
  • Prison Reading Groups volunteers visit our library to host a series of book clubs, ranging from light-hearted Quick Read titles to advanced crime fiction novels from the likes of Martina Cole (a favourite in our library) and Stephen Leather. An allocated budget for this initiative allows us to provide each prisoner willing to participate in the book clubs with a free copy of the book being discussed. I believe this initiative is important to prisoners as it stimulates an exchange of views, encouraging their communication with one-another.
  • Storybook Dads provides a platform where prisoners can bond with their children through reading stories to their children in the form of CDs and DVDs. They are sent to the prisoners’ families and the children can connect with their dads visually and with story telling.
  • The Prisoners’ Advice Service is a charity that visits us monthly to conduct a series of personalised legal advice sessions specialising in non-criminal law. Whilst most of their communication is done through telephone calls and letters, many prisoners are eager to book face-to-face sessions with these advisors.
  • Language-learning software Rosetta Stone was introduced into our library to cater for the many foreign prisoners wishing to improve and spend their time in a meaningful way. Since Rosetta Stone is well-known and a proven tool, there is an opportunity for the prison population and staff to improve their knowledge or simply start learning new languages.
  • Our first guest speaker, author and SAS soldier Andy McNab, inspired prisoners with his story of his eventful life. Russell Brand then visited our library in November; prisoners and staff left the event feeling positive while Russell and his team were wowed by the many functions we had running. We have since had further appearances from a variety of recognisable figures to inspire prisoners. Possible future visitors this year include authors Val McDermid, Martina Cole and Simon Kernick.
  • The library regularly offers creative writing sessions, working with the education department to deliver a qualification to those who regularly attend the course. On occasion, we have guest speakers host the course which include author Dreda Say Mitchell and former prisoner Shaun Attwood.
  •  A monthly newsletter called ‘Booked!’ created by prisoners for prisoners, which informs them of the latest activities within the environment, is generated monthly from the library. It also generates paid jobs for the specific group of prisoners who are scheduled to contribute on the newsletter. With the addition of a media suite recently opening, the newsletter will have the opportunity to expand into a magazine which we hope will generate more jobs.
  • The library is responsible for providing prisoners with a DVD Channel which broadcasts to each cell screen within the Thameside establishment. There are five channels that differ in content, providing the prisoner with a variety of material such as the latest blockbusters (including audio described showings), information on services offered within the Thameside establishment and fitness workout videos providing the prisoner with the option of performing in-cell exercise.

I am very proud to be affiliated with all of these initiatives and am immensely grateful for the many charities, volunteers and speakers who have donated their time and energy into enhancing the library and therefore the wellbeing of the prisoners who use the service. My greatest admiration however goes to the prison library workers who have joined me on a journey to develop the library and have shown a great commitment and passion for the library. Without them this would not be the place it is now, something I was proud to tell them at an inspiring celebratory event for the library in the summer of last year.

Our Director has been extremely supportive of the work we do in the library; in April he and other managemenent collectively awarded me with the Employee of the Year title at the Employment Partnership Awards and it felt great to have my efforts recognised. His ongoing support has been a useful tool in allowing us to progress with new ideas to keep our agenda current. We are broadening our services in a 216 cell category C prison extension which has recently opened.

Studying the Library Science MSc course on a part-time basis at City University London assists me in my job as it allows me to base assignments on topics relevant to my work as well as providing me with an insight into other collection orientated professions. These assignments help to identify areas where I can develop and also allow me to create documents which can be used in my place of work.

For example, my upcoming dissertation aims to examine if books will, in future, be the sole means of learning and reading. This is particularly interesting for me as prisoners in Thameside currently only retrieve their material through print. Therefore, the dissertation will be helpful in assessing how departments like mine could adopt new methods of retrieving and reading their material and how this could affect the usage of the printed book.

Another example is a recent ‘Information Domains’ module which asked in our coursework to produce an information guide for a specified subject. I decided to base my report on an introductory guide to the resources in our library which proved so successful it is now being used by the prison as a guide for inducting prisoners entering the establishment.

The Library Science MSc at City has also encouraged me to Tweet about things relevant to my profession. Recently, I have started posting photos of prisoners at HMP Thameside engaging in events based in our library on Twitter. These Tweets have proven a hit with the many companies, authors and organisations who contribute to our library but do not get the opportunity to see the resources they donate being utilised by prisoners firsthand. It is also nice to give fellow #citylis students and lecturers a taste of how my prison library operates!



I now understand how a prison library is described by some as the ‘heart of a prison’ – a place where prisoners can disconnect themselves from the harsh realities of prison life, switch off and escape to a world outside the cell. As one of my orderlies stated at our celebratory event, a prison library can be the one place in the prison where people can feel connected, both with others and with themselves. Their importance should not been downplayed and I hope they continue to benefit the wellbeing of the many who use them.

Neil is on Twitter @Neil_Barclay.

For future Library and Information Science news, opportunities and events follow the #citylis blog on Twitter @citylis.

If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact Ernesto Priego at ernesto.priego.1@city.ac.uk.

About Ernesto Priego

A lecturer at City, University of London. My research interests include digital humanities, library and information science, human computer interaction design, comics scholarship, scholarly communications, open access, open data and open educational resources.
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