Boston Librarian Connects Jailed Teens to Reading

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

Jessi Snow, coordinator of youth services at Boston Public Library, leans forward in her office chair as her brow furrows in concentration. She’s trying to decide on her favorite book.

She looks up as her face breaks into a huge dimpled grin that crinkles her eyes into small, twinkling half moons.

“The Dirt by Motley Crue,” Snow says, and then laughs. “It’s like the worst book ever, all sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. It’s terrible. I love it.”

Snow says that the rougher a book is, the more she feels drawn to it. No, she has never done drugs. No, she has never experienced life on the streets. But she admits she has a fascination with the dirty and the dangerous. She wants to understand the raw underbelly of urban life.

“Like, you know, give me a book about someone that’s addicted to drugs and just gets so down deep,” Snow says.

Snow, 39, is a lean, athletic woman around 6 feet tall. She walks slowly with rolled shoulders; the embodiment of relaxation. She has curly, dirty blonde hair that is graying at the roots. She doesn’t bother coloring it and wears it in a ponytail with wispy baby hairs escaping and framing her face. She wears a maroon sweater and khaki flared pants with brown clogs protruding from the bottoms. Even though it’s winter in Boston, Snow’s makeup-free face looks sun kissed, like she just got back from an impromptu surfing trip. She seems like someone who would do that, with her slight California twang, her “Yeah, man’s,” and her deep, frequent belly laughs.

When she’s not at the library, Snow enjoys watching TV, playing board games and listening to rock stars like Nikki Sixx and Rob Halford. She watches “Parks and Recreation,” “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development” and her favorite board games to play are Scrabble and Gin Rummy.

Her office is on the third floor of the BPL. The white walls are mostly bare, except for one hand-drawn poster that says “We Love Jessi Snow” in shaky child’s writing, accompanied by black stick figures holding hands and colorful heart shapes. Another smaller black poster says “Read Your Way to Fenway” for a summer reading and essay-writing contest—winners get three tickets to a Red Sox game, a baseball cap and a backpack. Above her desk, hundreds of young adult books with titles like “Crank,” “Dope Sick,” and “Lockdown” are neatly piled on a white shelf. More stacks sit by her computer and on the floor.

For the past three years as coordinator of youth services, Snow has been in charge of overseeing library services for children and teens in all 24 branches of the Boston Public Library system. This includes training incoming youth services librarians, running after-school homework help programs, developing the system-wide summer reading program, and fundraising through the Boston Public Library Foundation for youth program support. She also manages a partnership with the Department of Youth Services to get young adult literature to incarcerated teens at every institution in Boston.

This is a big promotion from her previous post at BPL’s Central library as teen librarian. There she focused less on administration and more on developing the collection of books for the central library’s young adult section, planning weekly programming for the teen room and helping students with bibliographic and database instruction. Even before her promotion, however, Snow was interested in outreach to foster youths and teens in group homes as well as incarcerated teens.

“I’ve always been very focused on serving the underserved,” Snow says, shrugging. “Not for charity reasons but I think that in suburban settings, that’s few and far between, same with rural settings. You know, I think in urban there’s populations that are underserved.”

Snow grew up in Newburyport, Ma, but says she spent her formative teen and young adult years-20 total-in California.

As a kid, she went to the Newburyport Public Library all the time with either her mom or her dad, “Pops.” She wouldn’t describe herself as a bookworm, someone who lived in the library, just as a kid who really loved reading good books.

Snow’s childhood librarian, whom she only knew as “Miss Green,” knew all the neighborhood kids’ names. She always knew which books Snow would like, never shushed rambunctious youngsters and wasn’t afraid to sit on the floor for story time. Because of Miss Green, Snow always wanted to be either a child or teen librarian.

“I had three role models growing up,” Snow says. “My grandmother, my mother, and my librarian.” Belly laugh.

After getting a bachelors degree in Art History from California State Fullerton, Snow went to UCLA for her masters in Library and Information Studies.

Teens, Snow says, interest her because they are in a period of transition. They are not quite children, but they are not quite adults. She thinks they are often marginalized, or made to feel guilty, just for being teenagers.

“I swear, every teen I speak to has a bad memory of a librarian treating them like crap cause they were a teen,” Snow says. “I had this one librarian…I was a bit of a punk as a kid. I would get in trouble.”

While working in Oakland, CA, as a teen outreach librarian, Snow noticed some nearby libraries working with detention centers to get books to incarcerated teens. The idea stayed with her. When she moved back to Boston, she realized that only one of the eight detention center units in Boston had a library, and the others were not getting outside books.

After four months of working with DYS administration and receiving advice from other librarians in the American Librarians Association running similar programs, Snow and a colleague began traveling to the institutions once a month with 10 books per unit, 80 total. The two would divide up the books and give brief synopses of every paperback. The program has expanded to fourteen librarians.

The librarians hold discussions about the last books teens read and take down requests for new books and library cards. Snow lets the teens know about what is going on in the outside world, and encourages them to use day passes to come to library programs focused on career development.

“We talk about financial aid, college application workshops,” Snow says. “I want them to know I’m listening, listening to what they want and what they need.”

Carol Johnson is the Library Services Coordinator and Literacy Specialist for DYS and helped Snow organize her program. She said having Snow and other librarians from the city come visit the teens is important in reminding the teens that they are a part of a larger community.

“Some of the kids haven’t even been to a library,” Johnson said. “The fact that there’s an effort from local librarians to come out and talk to them is huge. It expresses that somebody has gone a little bit for them.”

Johnson said the librarians get the teens interested in events going on outside prison—poetry slams, manga clubs and summer reading programs and encourage them to participate. This provides them with a positive link to the outside world that they can develop after leaving DYS.

As for Snow, Johnson said everyone who meets her, loves her.

“She’s enthusiastic, she’s focused and she really cares,” Johnson said. “In everything she does, she sees a purpose and sees a positive outcome in this.”

The trips last from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Snow and her colleagues must be well prepared. She types up all of the book summations for her and her cohorts and memorizes them. She wants to excite the teens about the books. They lean toward urban fiction, gritty memoirs, and books about building entrepreneurial skills.

“We try to bring books that have redemptive qualities,” Snow says.

Pleased with the program so far, Snow says in the future she wants to focus more on evaluation. Right now, she only knows how many books they have checked out: 2,880 since the program started in 2011. She wants to create surveys that ask whether the teens’ reading habits changed while they were locked up.

Snow produces a print out of quotes she gathered from some of the DYS teens when she asked them what the program means to them. She pushes the sheet across the table.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity from the people from Boston Public Library. They are very helpful and it’s very useful. I love it every time they come.”

“I like getting all those books to read, it helps keep my mind busy at night.”

“Helps you keep your mind straight.”

One chilly day, Snow was taking a walk with her husband around East Boston. She looked up to see a bundled up man making quick strides toward her.

“And this kid said, ‘Hey, you’re my librarian from DYS! How are you?’” Snow says. She beams. “And I was like, I could care less if he knew who I was, but I’m a librarian to him and that’s what I want. I want people to walk into a library and feel like they will be greeted happily and treated well and have a great experience and that’s why he was psyched to see me. That’s what he got when the library came to him.”

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