Libraries, service, and social justice: A conversation with Marybeth Zeman

by Maddy Vericker, DLIS Newsletter Editor

Last year, the DLIS Newsletter published a story about Marybeth Zeman, MLS ’09, whose book, Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time, came out in February 2014. Because the article, which can be accessed here, covers Zeman’s background extensively, I wanted to take the conversation about her work in another direction. The book, which discusses Marybeth’s work as a Librarian in the Nassau County Correctional Facility, is just one of the many ways that Zeman demonstrates her passion and advocacy for the work she does for young, incarcerated men. I sat down with Marybeth Zeman at the St. John’s Faculty Club, where we had the opportunity to discuss her work, education, and the Elizabeth Ann Seton Medal.

While an LIS student here at St. John’s, Marybeth believed that she would go into Museum Education or Museum Studies, but found herself pulled toward school library studies. The cohort that Marybeth entered the program with had similar goals, and she found that the interests of her peers opened doors that she had not imagined before. Marybeth expanded on the subject, encouraging current MLIS students at St. John’s to be flexible and open to new ideas: “Goals are valuable, but take opportunities and build until you find that you have achieved your goal, even if it isn’t the one you set out with.” Building on this, Marybeth emphasized the importance of networking, because that is how we make connections as professionals in the workspace. Making connections, like the advisor Zeman found in DLIS faculty member Dr. Rioux, contribute to the experience of earning the MLIS.

Speaking about work, Marybeth and I discussed what it’s like working with so many different stakeholders to achieve goals. On the most basic level of funding and getting supplies, Zeman has many layers of authority she needs to work with in order to get books and graphic novels onto her library cart–between the Nassau County Correctional System, East Meadow Public School District, and Nassau County Library System, there are many institutions working together on Marybeth’s projects. The simple act of acquiring books that a) have appropriate content, or b) can’t be weaponized, is much more difficult that one would imagine. However, all of the struggle is worth it for Marybeth, because she sees the impact that reading has on the youth that participate in the transitional program she coordinates at the prison. Zeman is able to reach out to boys that never succeeded in a traditional classroom, and show them that information is a tool that they can use to avoid recidivism. Marybeth explained to that “when given the opportunity to read, [the kids] will take the opportunity, they are curious and motivated, [but] there are underlying issues that result in the desire not to achieve. They act out and fail, and their teachers let them down.” It is in resolving this problem that Marybeth becomes an advocate for her students.

After publishing her book last year, Marybeth was delighted to use the media attention she received to advocate for service to incarcerated populations. In addition to her book, Zeman serves on the Board of Directors of Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, an all-volunteer, not-for-profit organization working to end illiteracy in the lives of NYC’s vulnerable incarcerated youth. This dedication to her work, at the prison and out, resulted in her receipt of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Medal at the Vincentian Convocation this past October at St. John’s St. Thomas More Church on the Queens Campus. Marybeth told me that she was “truly surprised and honored to be recognized” with the Medal, because she feels “as though [she’s] just a small part of the larger community committed to serving incarcerated people.” While this may be true, Marybeth’s voice for the incarcerated youth she serves is an influential one. Though hesitant to compare herself to the saint, Marybeth and I identified some definite similarities between herself and Elizabeth Ann Seton. Both women are educators, wives, widows, and mothers, who found their passions late in life and became advocates for social justice.

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