Amy Cheney, a 2002 SLIS graduate, is one of 10 winners of the inaugural “I Love My Librarian!” award presented by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New York Times, and the American Library Association. More than 3,200 librarians nationwide were nominated for the $5,000 cash prize, given in recognition of the librarians’ commitment and service to their communities and schools.
Cheney heads the nationally acclaimed Write to Read Youth Literacy Program at Alameda County Library Juvenile Hall in California. She was nominated by several members of the facility’s staff for inspiring “literally thousands” of detained students. She’s done so in part by bringing in powerful and thoughtful speakers, such as Ishmael Beah, Terry McMillian, and Victor Rivas Rivers, as well as offering a selection of reading material that connects with the juvenile hall’s largely African-American and Latino population.
“A lot of these youth aren’t going to libraries, or may be going to use the computers, but they aren’t finding any books they need,” Cheney said. “This library is totally for them.”
Cheney started working as a library page and assistant in the early 1980s. Her interest in working with the prison population started when Cheney became active in the anti-nuclear power movement, and several of her friends were arrested during protests and sent to jail.
“They told me, Amy, you would die in here – there are no books!” she said. So Cheney started a book drive to organize donations, working through the Alameda County Library system. That led to her connection with the director of outreach services, who later notified Cheney when a job opened to provide library service in the jails.
Now Cheney focuses exclusively on the lockdown population of youth, ranging from as young as 9 to 18 years old. At the time she started, the juvenile hall’s library consisted of books donated by staff. The program began in 2001 with a $100,000 grant from the Goldman Institute to develop the library. She stays in close touch with authors and publishers to keep abreast of new titles that might interest her students. Cheney is also 2010 chair of the American Library Association’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers Committee.
Cheney was astounded to learn she won the award. When the news was announced in the facility, the students in her office rapped their fists on their desks in appreciation and staff members poured in to offer their congratulations.
“It’s was really, really great,” she said, recalling the day. Three of the authors Cheney had hosted as speakers and championed as “quick picks” – Coe Booth, Dream Jordan and Jeff Rivera – showed up at the December awards ceremony in New York to cheer her on.