Anne Jackson knows words can heal.

Whether it’s been showing bulky ex-thugs riddled with bullet wounds how to write their name for the first time, or seeing painfully shy kids light up when discussing their favourite stories, the Welsh-born bookworm has seen a few lives turned around.

Now services manager at Carterton District Library, Anne has a CV that makes for riveting reading. Before arriving in New Zealand, she spent 15 years working for the British correctional sector as a prison librarian where she introduced books to inmates with terrifying rap sheets, encouraged young offenders to do their schoolwork and sat beside prisoners with no formal education as they read their first words.

In Carterton, her customers are less intimidating. But, for Anne, the healing effect of a good story is universal.

“I get a real buzz when I see that light go on in someone’s eyes when they tell us about a book that means something to them,” she says.

“People love coming to a library because they can feel safe and be themselves.”

As a youngster, Anne’s ambition was to be a police officer. But the dream was shelved because, at 4ft 10in, she fell short of the police force height requirement of 5ft 2in.

In her 40s, her dream was realised after UK police scrapped the height requirement and she was accepted into the Greater Manchester Police.

“People called me ‘the smallest bobby in the universe’. When I got my uniform, they had to take several inches off the trousers so they’d fit.”

After five years with the police, Anne completed a degree in Library and Information Studies. However, the crime world wasn’t done with her and she was hired as a librarian at a young offenders’ facility. Part of this role involved teaching a class of young inmates, who had long since disengaged from education.

“I just treated them like normal kids. You’d have to come up with ways to keep them interested. I’d bring in car magazines and tell the lads to imagine they had 20,000 pounds to spend on cars. They were to cut out the cars they wanted and decide how much to sell them for and what profit they wanted to make. They enjoyed it – though one lad only wanted to sell Porsches!”

Her next job, librarian at an adult male prison, was probably her most rewarding.

Though she served some of Britain’s most nefarious criminals, Anne found books were guaranteed to expose their softer side.

“At Christmas, I’d wrap up some books and give one to each of my regulars. These were big, burly, scary-looking guys – but they’d open their presents and be absolutely delighted.”

While at the prison, Anne worked alongside an educational trust to help the inmates improve their literacy. Her role was to train inmates to be mentors for those learning to read and write.

She often received letters from men once they were released who, thanks to her tutoring, had achieved qualifications and found employment.

“I had one guy say to me, ‘I thank God I came to this jail. I never used to be able to write me name. I couldn’t get a job, or help me kids with their homework. Now, I can write me name, and I can do better for me kids’.

“I was never scared in that job. I always told the guys if they treated me with respect, I’d do the same.”

However, one inmate did try holding her hostage – which she de-escalated by way of some sarcastic banter. “I’d say things like, ‘okay, I’ll finish with these shelves and I’m all yours’.

“The guy was a bit confused; he kept saying, ‘Miss, you’re supposed to be scared!’”

Anne’s prison career ended in 2010, when husband Neil found engineering work in Wairarapa. Though sad to leave, she was won over by the “lovely people and scenery to die for” in New Zealand.

These days, her most gratifying moments at Carterton Library come from the kids.

“I once served a young boy aged about eight. I asked him what he liked to read and we went off into the bookshelves while he chatted away to me quite animatedly about the books he loved. Later, his parents said he was very shy and never really spoke much. But he was buzzing when he left – all because we were talking about his favourite books.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Photo by Jannelle Preston-Searle