The Story of My Book: Prison Library

Prison Library is about a very particular place – a library that used to exist inside Fremantle Maximum Security Prison in WA. Talk to anyone who grew up in the town when Fremantle Prison was still a working gaol and they’ll have stories of its looming presence in their lives: the high stone walls, razor wire, the guard towers and massive gates that they drove or walked past every day. Yet twenty-plus years after Fremantle Prison ceased to operate, its library had become one of those subjects hardly anyone seems to know about.

I set out to find all remaining shreds of evidence of the library and to make a photo book that would stand in for the 10,000 odd items that were in it when it closed. (Although I didn’t know it then, my focus on images was apt since many prisoners weren’t good readers, and along with the books the library included masses of comics and illustrated magazines.) The search took me into various nooks and crannies where the Prison (now a museum) stores its collection, into archives, second-hand bookshops, the spaces of the former library and eventually to the new library at Casuarina Prison that replaced the old one at Fremantle.


The trickiest part was working out what to do with the evidence once I had it. It took bewilderingly different forms and inevitably there were lots of gaps. I didn’t want my book to give the impression of a coherence that wasn’t really there, and visually I wanted it to retain something of the make-do quality that was so strong a part of the library. The fact that it was all so fragmentary meant that I ended up writing a few pages of linking text. Another idea was to scatter through the book snippets from the many reports written during its operation. Among other benefits, they give Robert Hind, Prison Librarian from 1974 to 1991, prolific and entertaining report-writer, a voice.

Including thumbnails of book covers was the designer, Ricardo Felipe’s, idea. I had already pieced together, from different sources, a list of books known to have been in the library’s collection when it closed; Prison Library lists those 300+ titles and reproduces the front and back covers of some of them. They give an idea of what prisoners were reading at that time, seen through somewhat distorting filter of the books that have survived the relocation of the library and the decades since.

You can find more images of inside pages from the book here.

Photomedia artist Anne Ferran investigates the margins, gaps and silences of colonial history, uncovering what scattered evidence there remains from structures of social control such as prisons, workhouses, women’s homes and ‘lunatic asylums’. See more of her work here.