Comics in prison libraries? Huh.

In this article Martha Cornog, longtime reviewer for Library Journal, interviews Graterford Corrections librarian, Philip Ephraim, about the inclusion of comics in his prison library.  Ephraim talks about the circulation statistics of comics noting that they are a small portion of the collection but well-used by patrons.    As a result, Ephraim has observed an increase in patrons choosing more serious reading materials and becoming interested in the art of comics. Some of the appeal to the library patrons includes using them as reference or springboards for artwork and this has lead to the development of how-to draw books in the collection. Likewise, the drawing leads to the need to articulate dialogue in the creation of comics and so the study of writing has also increased in library patrons.  Most importantly, comics are signed out for entertainment which has a significant effect on the stress levels of the inmates, which in turn translates to pacifying the atmosphere of the correction facility itself.   Ephraim leaves the reader with a series of questions about the relationship between his inmate patrons and comics that he advocates should be researched. He wonders if there is a relationship between intelligence or reading levels and comics and how it can be measured. He is also curious about if the prisoners admire the characters they read about and wish to emulate them by performing good deeds.  Ephraim is trying to gather more data to persuade others that comics should be included in every prison library.

The interview with Ephraim about his prison library collection of comics and prisoners’ reactions left two lasting impressions of the dynamic in my mind: the increase in the pursuit of art-making and the questions of morality in comic book themes.  I can only assume that one of the factors that contributes to incarceration is illiteracy.  Certainly any kind of reading material that the inmates choose increases their exposure to text and the likelihood of reading activity.    While Ephraim agrees with current research that shows that reading comics can lead to higher literacy rates, his inclusion of comics seems to validate the reading decisions of his unique patrons.  Perhaps this is why they choose the creative act of art-making, rather than the destructive behaviour they’ve shown in the past.  This creation in itself empowers the same library users to ask for materials that they are interested in.  Having Ephraim purchase more texts that users request demonstrates that their interests have sway as the library collection is adapting to the users, rather than the users adapting to the available collection.

Furthermore Ephraim indicates his own interest in the grey areas of morality that are often emphasized in graphic novels.  As Ephraim does, I wonder if there is a measurable effect of the consistent good vs. evil themes in comics on the prisoners.  It seems obvious that this population would be interested in crime and the justice system.  I‘m just reading Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986) and in it the character Nite Owl says:

Some of us did it out of a sense of childish excitement and some of us, I think, did it for a kind of excitement that was altogether more adult if perhaps less healthy.  They’ve called us fascists and they’ve called us perverts and while there’s an element of truth in both those accusations, neither of them are big enough to take in the whole picture” (p. 8).

While Nite Owl was describing these heroes who dressed in costume to stop crime, he could easily be describing criminals. Especially in post-modern comics, we seem to see the duality of villains and heroes and how close to the edge of justice and injustice they both live.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these consistent themes are what appeals to the patrons of Ephraim’s library where they wrestle with the same moral questions about themselves.


Cornog, M. (2012, July 3). Q&A: Prison librarian Philip Ephraim on the positive

    effects of comics [Blog post]. Retrieved from Library Journal Reviews


Moore, A., & Gibbons, D. (1986). Watchmen. New York, NY: DC Comics.


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