Münster Prison Library, Germany

  • Date published:
    16 February 2012
Münster Prison Library
© Münster Prison Library

Programme Overview

Programme Title Münster Prison Library
Implementing Organization Münster Prison
Language of Instruction German
Funding The federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia
Date of Inception 2003

Context and Background

The main purpose of a criminal sentence is to protect society from further crime by giving offenders a chance to learn from their mistakes, develop socially responsible behaviour and be able to live a crime-free life after their release from prison. Recognising the value of the free time that most prisoners have in prison, many correctional institutions offer skills and vocational training as well as formal and non-formal education programmes as complimentary parts of a sentence. Considering the fact that many of inmates have never attended formal schooling, do not hold school-leaving certificates or have been low performers, the provision of such educational training and programmes in prison carries significant meaning. It is in this context that prison libraries take on central roles in creating the means and the setting in which lifelong learning can occur.

Although the books and audio-visual resources give inmates a general opportunity in any case to direct their thoughts away from the prison environment, the main value of the prison library is in providing its users with the option of further education and self-reflection, obtaining life skills and improving their reading skills. Thus, a specific purpose of the prison library is to encourage inmates to use the library material creatively to read and to become lifelong learners. Many of the inmates start reading in prison. Moreover, it is believed that a person who comes to appreciate books during his or her time in prison has better chances of successful integration into the life after release from custody.

As mandated by Article 28 of European Prison Law, “every institution must provide an adequately stocked library accessible to all prisoners. It should offer a variety of books and other materials, suitable for both entertainment and education” (Art. 28.5). In Germany, each of the sixteen federal states administers its own prison system and supervises adult and juvenile offenders both in detention centres and in correctional facilities. Based on legislation, offenders have the right to access a library during their free time; however, no further details about the resources and organisation of prison libraries are specified in the code.

Lack of resources and budgetary limitations as well as the special circumstances of prisons and detention centres have always created obstacles for prison libraries to run as efficiently as they should. For instance, prisons in most German federal states do not employ professional librarians. Prison library management at regional level exists only in very few places, leaving the majority of prison staff running institutional libraries with no option but to act on their own.

It is against this background that Münster prison in 2003 engaged a professional librarian, which led to fundamental reform and expansion of its library and system of administration. The library has since been able to stand out as an exemplary socially responsible library serving an often widely neglected group of people, namely incarcerated persons.


The Münster correctional facility, which is one of the oldest prisons in Germany, was built in 1853. Today, the prison houses almost 560 inmates from 50 countries. Most have the option of taking part in various programmes and activities including studies to earn a high school diploma. Approximately 310 inmates are employed for bookbinding, carpentry, and locksmithing work as well as in jobs in the library, business office, kitchen and general housekeeping.

The Münster Prison Library has undergone fundamental physical and conceptual change since 2003. Today, it offers nearly 10,000 books and other media in a completely renovated, colourful and attractive library room to a target group many members of which are not used to reading regularly. The Münster Prison Library was awarded the German Library Award of the year 2007 because of its impressive social library work.

Aims and Objectives

The main objective of the Münster Prison Library is to offer inmates an opportunity to use their free time constructively. The prison library serves three purposes:


  • Recreation The prison library is one option within the institution’s recreational programme. The books and audio-visual resources give inmates the opportunity to direct their thoughts away from prison and to “move” beyond the prison bars, which constrain them physically. Turning reading into a pleasant leisure activity is a big step for the prisoners, many of whom have not had positive experiences in their previous encounters with books.
  • Education Many of the inmates have limited levels of education. Some of them have never graduated from school or have been low school performers. A lot of them start reading in prison. Thus, a specific purpose of the prison library is to improve the inmates’ literacy skills, to encourage them to use the library material in creative ways to read and to become lifelong learners. Moreover, the library materials are sources of information and education on a wide variety of subjects. Finally yet importantly, the library provides the educational materials, which are used in the curriculum of the prison Education Department.
  • Personal development The prison library also provides valuable resources for personal development, self-reflection and raising self-awareness. Reading gives the inmates some privacy and a certain degree of cultural freedom to think about their lives, find inspiration in what they read and reach a higher level of self-awareness.

Programme Implementation: Approaches and Methodologies

There are certain elements, which distinguish the Münster Prison Library, form others of its kind. Some of these innovative approaches and methods include:

Successful renovation and creative design

In 2005, a professional architect redesigned the library completely. The new library is a true illustration of the fact that libraries open doors to new worlds. The room with its central location and attractive entrance invites the inmates into a large colorful space. The clever use of mirrors enlarges the room and gives it a kaleidoscopic effect. The library materials are displayed on three levels, on open shelves, moving carts and low cabinets. A “railway station for literary travels” (“Bahnhof der Bücher,”) is set up to take the inmates on a creative journey out of prison life.

Redesign of the library (2005)

Redesign of the library (2005)

A wide range of material

The library collection consists of almost 10,000 books, audiobooks, CDs, DVDs, newspapers and magazines in thirty languages. Having more than 2,000 titles in foreign languages gives the inmates who come from more than 50 countries the opportunity of reading in their own mother tongues. In addition to fiction and non-fiction, the library provides easy-to-read titles, illustrated books and comics; newspapers and magazines, audio books, CDs and DVDs. Graded reading material helps those with low reading skills. Legal publications inform and educate. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias open new doors to readers. Through government funds and book donations, the materials are regularly updated. Each year, 10–15% of the collection is replaced with new titles.

Open stack and direct access

One fundamental factor, which distinguishes the Münster Prison Library from other prison libraries, is the fact that inmates have direct access to the books and audio-visual collections. While most other prison libraries only provide materials to inmates from a printed catalogue selection, having access to open stacks has been the norm in Münster prison for more than twenty years, Each week, for 15 minutes, prisoners have the opportunity of choosing media directly from the shelves. Moreover, the option to access the library catalogue remotely through an intranet has recently become available. Using the installed computers at different locations in all the North Rhine-Westphalia correctional facilities, inmates can now conduct their own research. The possibility to walk around the bookshelves and browse books not only offers a change from the dreary cell atmosphere to the prisoners, but also creates more enthusiasm for reading

External partnerships and special events

Through the efforts of the Prison Library Department since 2003 a vast multi-type cooperation network has been set up between the prison library and local organisations including bookstores, publishers, the university and especially Münster public library. For instance, through an inter-library loan system, inmates have access to the collection of Münster public library. The staff and trainees from both libraries have visited each other’s libraries, and joint activities such as World Book Day, Copyright Day and Library Night have been organised. Working closely with other cultural organisations, the Münster Prison Library has been able to organise various cultural events to give inmates a taste of what is happening outside the prison walls. Some of these programmes include reading events and talks by authors and artists.

Computer technology

Although certain restrictions exist on prisoners’ access to information technology, the library has been using computer applications developed in-house to manage the collection. In addition, inmates can use the stand-alone computers to conduct a search within the library catalogue.

Cooperation with the Prison Education Department

The Prison Education Department offers inmates the opportunity to pursue two types of secondary school-leaving certificates – for Hauptschule and for Realschule (equivalent to lower secondary school diploma) as well as the Abitur (equivalent to the higher secondary school-leaving certificate). New levels of cooperation between the Prison Education Department and the library have been formed through the “Library as a Partner in Education” project introduced by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The curriculum includes an introduction to the library and its resources and trains inmates in using the library materials effectively. In addition, based on their syllabus, the teachers can make purchase suggestions to the library.

Monitoring and Evaluation

Each year, the librarian and the warden agree on an annual library development plan with specific objectives. It is against this annual development plan that the library’s performance is evaluated. Furthermore several research papers and scholarly publications have been written about the prison library within the past years.

Impact and Challenges


In addition to the annual evaluation, a survey was conducted in collaboration with the Documentation Centre for Prison Literature at Münster University in 2006 to assess inmates’ reading habits. Out of 200 questionnaires which were returned (40 per cent of inmates participated), 79 per cent said they use their free time for reading which makes it the most popular leisure activity and leaves watching TV in second place. Sixty per cent of respondents said they spend an average of two hours a day reading which for the majority of them is much more than what they used to read before their imprisonment. The majority of reading material (88 per cent) comes from the prison library with the rest being obtained from fellow inmates. More than 80 per cent of the respondents use the library monthly and almost half of them use it on a weekly basis. Reading for information and education has been the primary motive for 83 per cent of the inmates.


Probably the greatest challenge the prison library faces is to operate under restraints and special circumstances imposed by the environment of the prison. The Prison Library Department must comply with all the rules and regulations as well as security and order considerations of the prison administration. At the same time, the competition for the available financial and human resources is rising continuously.

Another main challenge is being able to deal with a certain level of imperfection. Because of the special context within which the prison library operates, inmate library assistants carry out almost all the routine tasks. This requires a level of compromise by the management of staff and high tolerance as most of the assistants do not have professional experience and are limited in the tasks they can perform.

Lessons learned

The Münster Prison Library is an excellent example of social library work and serves as a model for other prison libraries.

Management by Professional Librarians

The Münster Prison Library’s success demonstrates the important role professional librarians can play in reviving a library and creating an attractive literate environment that promotes a culture of reading. In the past, teachers, priests or social workers have been in charge of prison libraries; however, transferring prison library management to professional librarians has been the determining factor in the success of the Münster Prison Library.

Creative use of library space

One of the lessons learned from the Münster Prison Library project has been the creative use of available space and turning it into an attractive and inspiring environment, which invites users to read and spend time in. The library is colourful and it spreads out like a fan from the door. Bookshelves almost reach the ceiling and mirrors cover the rest of the space. The walls and ceiling are painted with leaves to create an uplifting atmosphere.


The library budget is continuously granted by the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia. However, donations are also accepted to complement existing public funds.


  • Peschers, G. ( 2011). Books open worlds for people behind bars: Library service in prison as exemplified by the Münster Prison Library, Germany’s “Library of the Year 2007”. In: Library Trends. 50(3), 520–543
  • Website of the Münster Prison


Gerhard Peschers
Address: Gartenstrasse 26, 48147 Münster, Germany
Phone: +49 251 23 74 -116
Fax: +49 251 23 74 -201
E-mail contact: gerhard-peschers (at) jva-muenster.nrw.de
Website: http://www.jva-muenster.nrw.de/aufgaben/freizeit_der_gefangenen/buecherei/index.php and http://www.gefangenenbuechereien.de

Last update: 16 February 2012

For citation please use

U. Hanemann (Ed.). Last update: 16 February 2012. Münster Prison Library, Germany. UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning. (Accessed on: 2 December 2023, 21:41 CET)

PDF in Arabic

Related Documents