Departing Library System Director on Her Journey From Segregated South to Shared Spaces

Departing Library System Director on Her Journey From Segregated South to Shared Spaces

Hamilton to leave at end of July after 12 years leading MCPL

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Parker Hamilton

Via Montgomery County Government

Speaking recently from her future home in Alabama, Parker Hamilton said she was digging through the heap of books she'll be able to read after she leaves her job leading Montgomery County Public Libraries.

The Golden Apples, a short story collection by Mississippi writer Eudora Welty. An old copy of The Canterbury Tales to feed her appetite for medieval fiction. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle's guide to living in the present. A book of 18th century poetry.

"Wow," Hamilton said, overwhelmed by her own list after rattling off another three or four titles.

All this despite the fact that Hamilton, who has directed MCPL for 12 years and will retire at the end of July, does not consider herself a reader, per se. In fact, Hamilton said her mother never took her to libraries during her childhood in the tiny town of Red Top, South Carolina, and her literary diet consisted mainly of board books from the Piggly Wiggly, fashion magazines and the Bible.

But she's always been hungry for knowledge, she said, and it wasn't until she was in college that she stumbled upon the wealth of information waiting just inside the doors of a public library.

"I was a pretty good student, and had I been exposed to this, what possibilities would've existed for me?" she wondered. "And so I wanted every child, every adult, every teen, every person to have that opportunity to be exposed to the possibilities. That's when I decided I wanted to be a librarian."

Hamilton's revelation in a library at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign came after years of working to secure education.

Hamilton grew up in the segregated South, and while her close-knit community served as something of a shield, her parents were frank about the ways that racism limited opportunity for their seven children. Hamilton remembers hearing about a cross-burning on her grandmother's front yard, and her mother and father made sure never to take her to white doctors, she said.

When Hamilton graduated from high  school, she decided to get a job as a domestic worker so she could earn money for the family and pay for her higher education.

As she charitably puts it: "It was not an environment I was successful in."

Hamilton said her grandmother had taught her how to keep a house neat and clean, but her white employer insisted on standing over her and barking orders while she worked. It wasn't enough to mop a floor; the woman forced her to scrub it on her hands and knees.

"She was very much an overseer in terms of the work I was doing," Hamilton said.

Her time cleaning the woman's home was short-lived, and she moved on to a job with a local telephone company that was starting to integrate. Shortly thereafter, her eldest brother was killed in the Vietnam War, and she started attending Morgan State University in Baltimore with money from his life insurance policy. 

Her schooling continued at South Carolina State University until she finally found her calling as a librarian during her time at the University of Illinois. 

Hamilton started working at MCPL in 1981 after moving to Montgomery County with her husband and three children. Over the past 30 years, she's watched as libraries evolve from a place devoted to story time and homework help to a technological hub where people can tweak their resume or develop a business plan.

Hamilton said she views the library's role as varying with the needs of the community and believes MCPL should act as a shared space for people from all walks of life. 

"We do not judge, and as long as you follow our posted behavior guidelines, you are welcome. That means you could be homeless. Or you could drive a Mercedes. You could be a county official sitting right next to a person who might not have a shelter," she said.

During her tenure, the system has launched a program called Library Link that seeks to visit each Montgomery County elementary school to issue students library cards. MCPL also started initiative to loan out learning kits that contain iPad minis, educational toys and books. They’ve added e-magazine resources and a service to connect readers with book recommendations.

The system also earned praise for the Service Beyond Our Walls program, which has outreach teams setting up pop-up libraries at malls, farmer’s markets and other gathering spaces.

County Executive Ike Leggett praised Parker for her ability to guide MCPL toward excellence, noting that the system earned 19 awards from the National Association of Counties and innovation awards from the Urban Libraries Council. She also helped the system weather bleaker times, he said.

"Under Parker's leadership, our County libraries were able to survive some tough times during the Great Recession when budgets had to be cut to the bone, without sacrificing quality, hours, or customer service," Leggett said. "Plainly put, Parker has made a difference for all County residents."

Hamilton said she will depart the library system at age 69 so she can move away from Colesville and head south again to be near her children and grandchildren. She's already been busy setting up her new home in Alabama.

The first piece of furniture she bought for it?

A bookshelf.

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