Meet the Librarian at DCL Prison's Service
Published on 15th April 2021
Sonya McGee is the Librarian at Dublin City Libraries Prison's Service. Here she tells us about her role with Dublin City Libraries:
I joined DCL in 2006 as a library assistant, and have had a few different roles down the years – working in a branch (the public face of the library service), being part of the relief team (the cavalry!), and working behind the scenes in Staff Section (the engine room).
Since August 2019, I’ve been assigned to the Prisons Service, based in Mountjoy, but also looking after Wheatfield, Cloverhill, and Arbour Hill prisons, a role that’s bringing new experiences and rewards.
What is your favourite part of the job?
It’s a very collaborative process, not just between Dublin City Libraries and the Irish Prison Service, but also internally, between library staff, prison staff, chaplains, teachers, counsellors, psychologists, and Red Cross. Prisoners themselves are great for giving feedback on stock gaps and gluts, which foreign languages they need more of, which arts and crafts they’re interested in.
Tell us about the library where you work. What are you most proud of?
Being a librarian with the Prisons Library Service is really enjoyable. The work here is hugely interesting and involves a lot of variety. There are currently eleven branches incorporated under one umbrella, and they’re all different: different demographics, needs, interests, priorities, not to mention physical locations around Dublin.
Literacy levels are an issue here, and a lot of prisoners wouldn’t be natural readers, but when they see their cellmates reading, it motivates them to then try the book themselves. We’re a small team – there are only three of us - and we work hard to deliver a cohesive yet tailored library service to all of them. It’s an incredibly rewarding job, and we get a lot of positive feedback from both prisoners and other staff.
Who was one of the most inspirational/ interesting people you have met in your work with Dublin City Libraries?
The much-missed Orla Ní hAonigh, who facilitated so many creative writing groups for Dublin’s libraries. I first met her when I was working in Dún-Laoghaire Rathdown Libraries, and was delighted to see her again when I moved to Dublin City Libraries, as she facilitated writing groups for us too, so I got to see and chat with her regularly.
Despite her MS, she provided many years of creative inspiration and thoughtful feedback to Dublin’s aspiring writers, and so many of the writing group members down the years told us library staff of the support they received from her.
Tell us an interesting fact about your library.
I love the variety in the requests for books we receive. Currently there’s a craze for atlases. There are always the standard requests for fiction, self-help, sports, Cell Workout, etc., but I love it when we get more individual requests for the likes of The Complete Ocean Skipper, 100 Great Books in Haiku, the Harry Potter series for reading along with your son so you can discuss them with him during visits, and The Neil Diamond Songbook. No matter your circumstances, dream big and keep your sense of humour!
What was your favourite book as a child?
Watership Down by Richard Adams. One of my aunts gave it to me when I was 9, and I devoured it within days. I still re-read it every few years. I love its different angle on the adventure/quest story, the sheer imagination of it, the vivid characterisation, and, even though I know the story backwards, the element of suspense is still there.
What are you reading right now?
I’m working my way again through Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy – Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light. The way she can take such a well-known story and put so fresh a slant on it amazes me: the characters think and express themselves in a way that’s completely relatable to our modern minds, it doesn’t read like historical fiction at all. The writing is innovative, and the background research impeccable.
Which of your books is battered from using again and again?
Actually it’s an entire set: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series - adventure on the high seas! It’s pure comfort-reading, and very good for long commutes.
Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.
I spent ten years working as a lab technician for ICI in England. After the department was made redundant, I moved home, and decided that libraries were where I wanted to be, and have never looked back. In my spare time, I volunteer with my local Red Cross branch.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
The stereotyped misconception about libraries and librarians is still surprisingly common – shy, timid types in dusty, austere buildings.
The reality is very different: modern libraries are bright, vibrant places, and modern librarians are resourceful people with an ability to engage with anyone and everyone.