Prison Library Project: Interview with Titus Moolathara, Branch Manager, Free Library of Philadelphia by Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.

For this month’s interview, I had the great opportunity to talk with Titus Moolathara, one of Library Journal’s professionals on their list of Movers & Shakers (Advocacy) for 2016.  In the interview that follows, I think you’ll see that Mr. Moolathara’s professionalism and true commitment to serving his community came across clearly throughout our conversation.  As you read through the interview, you may want to consider these questions to reflect on as you grow your own career:

  1. What do you imagine to be key opportunities or settings where you can fan the flame of your own particular passion(s) related to librarianship?
  1. What do you do to identify the needs of the population you serve?
  1. Based on the needs you’ve already identified (for the population you serve) and the programs and services you currently have in place to respond to those needs – what might be the next step in expanding those offerings to make an even bigger difference to those you serve?

Caitlin: Could you share some background on your education and your experience leading up to your current position?

Titus: Let me start with where it all began.  I came to the United States in 2008 from India.  I did an M.A. and M. Phil. in History from Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi.  It was tough to find a job in 2008.  I loved to teach but I couldn’t find any openings.  That’s when one of our family friends introduced me to the public library.  I started visiting the local neighborhood library regularly. I was so fascinated by the staff, the space, and the different programs offered that I dreamt of working in a library one day.

To fulfill my dream, I went to Drexel University to get my MLIS. I wanted to work in an academic library because of my advanced degree.  But I didn’t find what I wanted to do.  The only job I found was in a state prison library.  This was the last thing I wanted to do.  I really didn’t want to work in a prison.  But I took the offer as I had no other options.

The prison library job helped me learn some very important lessons for life. I learned that the prison library has a tremendous impact on the inmates.  Inmates love to come to the library!  But, still, I wanted to be out of the state prison setting.  After 15 months, I found a job at the Free Library of Philadelphia as a librarian.

But, some lessons you learn in life you never forget.  I kept meeting people coming back from the prisons who came into the library.  They were doing job search, taking part in different programs, and making use of all the resources in the library.  During this time, I also met a few people coming back from the city prisons.  I asked them about the library and programs at the city prison. They told me they didn’t have a library inside in the city prisons, which surprised me.  There are approximately 8,000 inmates there who had nothing to read.  So, I was curious about what we (at the library) could do with the city prisons.  We approached the city officials with the idea of starting a pilot program. and we got approval to start a pilot program in 2013.

That’s how we started the Prison Library Project and the program has been expanding.  We now offer programs that reach out to incarcerated parents, inmates, families, and their children. We also offer programs for middle and high school children who have disciplinary issues in school.

Caitlin: What kinds of things do you do with them through your program?

Titus: Prison & Reentry Services offers three programs: the first is the prison library in the city prisons, the second program is Stories Alive – that is a free video conferencing session from the prison to the local neighborhood library.   It gives the incarcerated parent the opportunity to read a book with the child.  We place the same sort of books in the prison that are available in the library; so, in a given session, the child comes in with the parent or guardian and they (the incarcerated parent and child) have a time of reading and family visiting time.

Caitlin: It must be amazing.

Titus: Yes, we got a grant – the IMLS Sparks! Ignition Grant in 2015 to pilot Stories Alive.   And Stories Alive is now expanding to new library locations and jails.

The third program we do is called Change Course – it’s a reading-based diversion program for at-risk middle school and high school children.

We introduce them to literature at their level  Through reading we discuss characters similar to them and talk about choices and consequences. Change Course  is focused on improving the children’s reading level and helping them remain in school.  The program has been doing well and we’re thinking of expanding  and reaching more children.

Caitlin:  What is the greatest challenge and greatest satisfaction in running these programs?

Titus: I always tell myself and also my colleagues that librarianship is a profession in which you get to follow your passion or choose a passion.  And through this profession, you get an opportunity to excel in that passion.  I love working with people and meeting the needs of the community.  This profession gives us so much opportunity to do just that.

Caitlin:  How about the greatest challenge?

Titus:  I would say it is staffing issues. The Free Library has been very supportive, and they are now exploring options for me to do work on the prison program full time.

I’m also managing a branch library.  We have been facing staffing issues at my branch due to staff transfers and promotions. It becomes very challenging to keep the branch open.

Caitlin:  Do you manage a staff there?  Do you have people reporting to you in the Prison Program?

Titus: Yes, I have three people who work for the prison program.

Caitlin:  As you manage the branch library, I assume you have a staff there, too?

Titus: Yes, a librarian, library assistants, and a security guard who also reports to me.

Caitlin:  Looking again at the Prison Program, what is a “typical” day like managing this program?

Titus:  Right now, it’s more of the administration work.  But when there is a need for more staff, I step in and do what I can do.  For example, on a session day for Stories Alive on a Saturday, if we’re short staffed, I come in to do the session.  We are required by the Prison Dept. to be in these sessions.  It’s emotionally very powerful for us to sit through them.

The child may be seeing the incarcerated parent for the first time in several months. So, on seeing them, children may ask “Mom – or Dad – when are you coming home?”  it’s emotionally very powerful for us and we’re very glad that this program is Impacting so many children and so many families.  We’re very encouraged to see and be part of this program.

Caitlin: As you look ahead, in terms of both the prison program responsibilities and in your role as a library manager overall, where do you see these programs going?

Titus:  For any program to be relevant, we need to be flexible and continue to meet the needs of the community we are serving.  For example, when we started the prison library we learned the positive impact it created among inmates.  Inmates started to take part in different prison programs.  One of those  programs was Messages from Dad – this is an  audio recording program of the book  reading session. The recording is then sent in a CD format to the child.

We put our heads together to find a way to Skype the reading program to neighborhood libraries. This is how we started Stories Alive. The program is now expanding in neighborhoods where we have incarceration issues.  And then, as Stories Alive was expanding, we sensed the need to initiate programs for at-risk children. So, we started the Change Course program.

I believe for any program, or any library to be relevant in the 21st century, we need to be flexible, and we need to  always keep in mind the needs in the community.

Caitlin: For yourself, how do you stay up-to-date with knowing these needs? And staying up-to-date in the field overall?

Titus:  Professionally, I do make it a point to visit the Library Journal website and read relevant articles.   But much of my learning has been working in a public library, where you get to see a lot of different people every day coming from different walks of life with different needs.

If you listen to them patiently, you tend to know what the community around your library needs and how you can create programs and services that can be more useful for them.

Caitlin: What advice would you give to those just out of library school, regarding how to make the most of their profession?

Titus:  As I said earlier, I am passionate about working with people and I believe most library school graduates have some sort of passion within them.  Librarianship gives graduates the opportunity to fan the flame of their own passions.  And, if they are open and willing to work in a public library, there is so much opportunity to  use their passion  to meet the needs of the community.

Caitlin:  Do you have any advice for those who may be in their jobs for a while and feel a bit burned out or aren’t sure how to grow in their field?

Titus:  I always align myself with the mission and vision of the library and consider how to meet the needs of the community.  We can become passive from day-to-day working in the same setting.  It can become repetitive.  But challenging myself with whether I’m continuing to align myself with the vision of the organization and meeting the needs of the community helps me.  It helps me to look up resources, articles and professional journals, and look at how and what work has been done, as well as what new things can be done. And I also get in touch with people in the neighborhood to ask:  How can the library  meet your needs?  How can we can be useful with the resources we have.  That is what I usually do.

Caitlin:  Can you give an example of how you’re able to do that in the community?

Titus:   I work in a very challenged neighborhood and we have lots of needs: high poverty, high incarceration rates, a high rate of high school drop-outs.  So, the question is: how can we, with limited resources, be effective in such an environment?  You do it through partnering with non-profits, community leaders, if there are any, and faith- based or other leaders who are willing to work with the library.  You have to understand what they are looking for, what their goals are, and how the library can fit in with their goals.

What I’m learning is that the library is already a well-trusted place in this neighborhood, so we just have to reach out and connect with the needs of the community.  For example: How can we help children remain in school, or how can we get families reconnected to those who are incarcerated, or, how can we help children with their homework or make the library a safe space for children after school? 

Caitlin:  How do you take care of yourself during your off-time?

Titus: My off-time is with my family, with my children.  I tend to relax among them.   This also gives me a lot of motivation when I come back to work – to see how the library can be more useful for children and families.

When I go back home, I’m always humbled and always encouraged that I have a family to come back to and that I can spend time with my children – help my children with their homework.  So, it works both ways.

Caitlin:  Is there anything else you would like to mention about your role or activities your library is involved in?

Titus: I would also add that here at the Free Library of Philadelphia we have a new department called Strategic Initiatives. They help employees with their ideas and innovations.

Caitlin: It sounds like such an initiative helps with engagement.  Is this a new initiative at your library?

Titus:  Strategic Initiatives started in 2013, right around the time when we started the Prison Program and it was very timely.  I could go to the Strategic Initiatives Department with ideas and they helped me figure out how things could be done. They helped us approach the grants department and apply for the IMLS Sparks Grant.

We also get a lot of financial help from major foundations and private donors to expand the program.

Titus: One last thing I wanted to mention. The Philadelphia city prisons have been very supportive of all the programs we initiated.  And I’m very grateful to the city prison administrators.

Here is a link that Titus has shared, so you can learn more about the activities of the Free Library of Philadelphia:

And here are some key takeaways from my conversation with him that may be useful to you:

  • Having a vision of what you want to be contributing professionally is a great way to set in motion a career path that will let you build on your passions.
  • Don’t be afraid to step away from the “inside” or your position to explore the “outside” – the goals, needs and aspirations of the community you serve.
  • Partner with others and be curious about the different ways your ideas on how to serve your community might become a reality.