Library Matters

Library Matters is a podcast by Montgomery County Public Libraries exploring the world of books, libraries, technology, and learning.
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Library Matters is a podcast of Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL) in Montgomery County, MD. Each episode we explore the world of books, libraries, technology, and learning. Library Matters is hosted by Julie Dina, Outreach Associate, Lauren Martino, Children's Librarian at our Silver Spring branch, and David Payne, Branch Manager of our Davis branch and Acting Branch Manager of our Potomac branch.  

Feb 7, 2017

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Adrienne Miles Holderbaum (Producer):  Welcome to Library Matters, the Montgomery County Public Libraries podcast.

Alessandro Russo:  Library Matters is Montgomery County Public Libraries new podcast.  Each episode will explore the world of books, libraries, technology, and learning.  I’m Alessandro Russo, a librarian at MCPL’s Kensington Park Branch.

David Watts:  And I’m David Watts, the Circulation Supervisor at Silver Spring Library.  We hope you’ll join us as we discuss the challenges and opportunities facing libraries and the people they serve.

Alessandro Russo:  For our first episode, we have MCPL Director Parker Hamilton with us to discuss the role of libraries and MCPL in particular in a time of change.  What is your role as MCPL director?

Parker Hamilton:  I’m the director of public libraries for Montgomery County, Maryland.  And in that role, I get to serve the residents of Montgomery County, Maryland.  We’re a County of about 1 million people, we’re very diverse.  I came to the county in 1980 from Evanston, Illinois and settled in the county because of the diversity that it promised us in 1980.  If I’m to be true, that diversity did not exist but it does today.  And so in my role, I am charged, I am honored to provide library services to the residents of Montgomery County.

Alessandro Russo:  It sounds like a big job.

Parker Hamilton:  It’s a big job.  But you know what’s so cool about it?  I have so many people help me do it.  Not only do I have an outstanding staff of people but I have community support, the funders support us, and we have national organizations that help tell the story of public libraries.  So, it’s a big job but it’s not one that I do by myself.

David Watts:  Parker, the role of libraries in our country is in flux.  Where do you see or how do you see leverage changing in Montgomery County in the next five to 10 years and even in the far distant future?

Parker Hamilton:  You know what?  I believe, and I think we see it in Montgomery County, our residents determine what a library would look like and what public libraries can do.  As you look back how Montgomery County has changed over the years, we were a white affluent community.  And the services and programs that we offered during that time served the needs of that community.

David Watts:  Absolutely.

Parker Hamilton:  Now, today, we are minority, majority community.  We have young people, we have people who speak different languages, we have people who are looking for jobs who cannot afford to go to a college, we are the university of those people, and so that informs us and helps us as librarians and administrators decide what to offer because we can sit in our offices or in our branches and even go out and say, “Oh, I am going to do this.  If it does not have an impact, if it does not draw in the community why are we doing it?  So I think it’s the community.  It’s the residents that will help us determine how we’re going to look in the next five years.

David Watts:  Well, I think you’ve done an excellent job in being forward-thinking.  I work at Silver Spring as you know and we are not a drive-up branch.  So, when you talk about how libraries have changed in this county, most of our branches are drive-up branches, family can just drive up, but Silver Spring was designed specifically for walk-up clientele.  That took a lot of guts because I’m sure there was a lot of pushback when that was on the drawing board.  But I think you would admit it’s been successful.

Parker Hamilton:  Oh, Silver Spring is it’s really, really successful.  We just had this huge event there last Saturday.  My staff is this really funny.  We have lots of really great ideas in this library department and the folks come to me and say, “Parker, I have this idea and I think we should do this comic convention.”  They expected me to say no and I said, “Come on.”  So I think I’m a good listener and I listen to understand.  And I think if someone is bold enough to come up with an idea and want to share it with me, then I want to say yes.  It may not look exactly the way they think it should look by the time we get through tweaking it, but I do want to say yes because I do believe that that experience helps us as an organization.  And if only administrators are doing it, then we’re not going to grow as an organization.  I really believe that we can lead from any position.  So a frontline staff person can help lead this organization.

Alessandro Russo:  And you did mention the few – the changes that you’ve seen being within MCPL.  And I think a good point you just brought up is kind of this concept of it’s not a administration making decision its trickle-down system, it’s kind of tell us what you want within the staff ladder and then we’ll all work together to try to make it happen.

Parker Hamilton:  Exactly, because we’re a system and we’re a team.  And you guys hear from people that I never get to talk to, but I also hear from people that you never get to talk to, and I also have bosses, and so, with all of that information, then jointly, together, we serve the residents of this county.  We did our strategic plan recently.

David Watts:  That’s just what I was about to ask you about.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah.

David Watts:  If you could help us to understand the new strategic plan, where it came from, what was the impetus for it, and how did we arrive at the decisions that we should take?

Parker Hamilton:  Well, you touched earlier, David, about the library of the future.  So our county executive held a summit, it was The Library Summit of the Future, and then he got a second one.  And, you know, may I take the opportunity?

David Watts:  Yes.

Parker Hamilton:  So if you’re going to have a summit with Mr. Leggett, our strategic plan is coming to the close.  Let’s use that opportunity to talk to our residents and gather information to help us create a new strategic plan.  And so, we took that opportunity to talk to over a thousand residents.  It happened in the branches.  Our outreach team went out and talked to folks in the community.  Mr. Leggett did a online chat and we asked questions and we listened and we allowed people to build off of each other.  And so by visibly sharing what folks are hearing and say, “This is what Mrs. Brown thinks.  This is what Mr. Bran – Mr. Jones said, what do you think?” you know.  And I really believe that it’s important that people see themselves in our libraries.  And so, if you walk into our library, David, as an African-American male, I want you to find information, programs, and services that you can use that will make an impact in your life.  And I want that for every residents whether, they’re 16 years old, whether they’re 80 years old, whether it’s a mother or a father, or a caregiver pushing them in their stroller, you should be able to walk away with something to take home or either use in our library in order to enrich your life.

So the strategic plan came about as a result of Mr. Leggett’s second summit.  And Mr. Leggett is a great supporter of library services he has a great vision for what he wants to have happen in this county.  And he knows where to go and say, “I want this done.”  So one of the things that he said to me at that summit was, “Parker, I want libraries to do more in the area of workforce development.  So you’ll see in our strategic plan, an emphasis on workforce development.  You also see in our strategic plan an emphasis on delighting the customers that became very critical because, as I said, earlier this county is a minority-majority county, and try as we might in all of our branches we don’t have staff that reflects the community.  And so it became important that we train our staff in order to understand the demographics of this county and what that really means.  We like to think that we live in a colorblind society, but I believe that color matters because we are who we are because of our background.  I am who I am because I’m an African-American female, 68 years old from the South.  The life that I’ve lived has brought –

David Watts:  Reflects that.

Parker Hamilton:  Exactly.  And that is for everyone.  And so, if you don’t understand what it means to talk to a child who may have lived in El Salvador or Africa, how are you going to provide library services that’s going to delight them.

David Watts:  Absolutely, absolutely.

Parker Hamilton:  And so that delighting, our customers became – let’s delight our customers but let’s take care of our staff, let’s train our staff, let’s develop our staff in order for success to take place on both sides of that desk.

David Watts:  So in that, customer-based decision making is one component.  That’s allowing a customer to feel that they’re involved in how the service is delivered to them and helping them to also understand where we have to draw a line sometimes.

Parker Hamilton:  Right, right.

David Watts:  And that’s about being conversational with our customer.

Parker Hamilton:  Exactly.

David Watts:  Even though they come from these various diverse backgrounds, it’s saying to them, “I want your input.  I want you to be involved.  I want us to be partners.  It all helps fulfill our mission statement, which as you know is to help everyone to learn and grow.

Parker Hamilton:  Exactly, exactly.

David Watts:  So some of the programming that we’re doing is getting broad and going in that direction.  What, in terms of programming, are we doing to grow and develop?

Parker Hamilton:  I think – I just want to go back one more step and talk about the strategic plan as a commitment.  I think it’s my commitment to the staff that this is the work that we’re going to do, but I’m going to ensure that you have the resources to do the work.

David Watts:  Absolutely.  And Mr. Leggett – not to cut you off – has been instrumental in us getting the level of funding that we need to be successful.

Parker Hamilton:  Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.

David Watts:  Yeah.

Parker Hamilton:  And then it’s our commitment to our residents that we’re going to provide the best services possible within our resources.  I believe that we’re public servants and I believe that the taxpayers are our bosses.  And I think when you have that that philosophy of service, it helps with that conversation that you want to have.  It helps with the respect that we want to have.  And so, we’ve been working really hard, trying to develop different types of programs.  We’re working with the public schools.  We’re working with the workforce development organizations, we’re working with the colleges, and we’re trying to see how not to present programs that conflict with each other with programs that complement in each other, and forms on a continuum.

David Watts:  Absolutely.

Parker Hamilton:  So if a certain subject is being taught in the school – for example, STEM – then libraries, I think, should help with that, and that is why you say that we’re doing a lot of programs in STEM, we’re doing coding, we’re doing a lot of programs for our young adults.  And people are living longer.  Mr. Leggett has an emphasis on seniors, so we’re doing lots of program on seniors.  And because seniors are living longer, they’re having two, three career opportunities.  And because the world is changing, they have to develop new skills as they go to search for jobs when they’re 60 years old versus 20 years old.  And so that’s why we’re doing technology programs for teens and seniors.  And I just think that the conversation you talked about gets us there.

David Watts:  Absolutely.

Parker Hamilton:  And so, we will do different type programs next year because we’re going to hear from our customers this worked, what about this.  And then we’re going to hear from our staff and see.  You know, I went to a program at Barnes & Noble or I went to a program in another library system and this is what they’re doing and this is the impact, let’s give it a try here.  And here’s why I think it would make a difference in the lives of the people who live in Montgomery County.

David Watts:  One thing that I did want to touch on, Parker, because I – when you were talking about new programs, I know you’re excited about this new initiative library link and it must have been tremendously rewarding to be a part of that and to see that in the branches.

Parker Hamilton:  I’m just going to tell all my staff.  Usually, when we sign a memorandum of understanding with another agency, that is signed by someone directly in Mr. Leggett’s office, either the chief administrative officer or either the assistant chief administrative officer or even Mr. Leggett.  So we finally got the agreement ready for signature.  I went to my day-to-day boss Tim Firestine, the chief administrative officer.  And I said, “I want my name to be on this document because I’ve been in this system almost 36 years and we have been trying to formulate a formal arrangement with library administration and the administration of Montgomery County Public Schools and we neither have one.  And so to achieve that, I really wanted my name on it and, yes, I did jump up on them.

Alessandro Russo:  I mean, that’s a very large bridge to construct and have in place, but one thing I think that the most positive impact it’s going to have it’s going to open other doors between the public libraries and even the school media specialists, you know.

Parker Hamilton:  Absolutely.  That’s just the first step and, you know, because a library card is a library card.  It’s really important to have a library card to use our databases, to check up materials.  But even more important, I think, is that relationship that’s going to occur between librarians like you and staff.  And because at the end of the day, their students are our students, and we want to ensure success, you know.  One of our missions is to prepare children ready to learn.

David Watts:  Yes.

Parker Hamilton:  So how do you prepare children ready to learn?  You need to know what’s going to happen when they go to kindergarten.  You need to know what’s going to happen in first grade.

Alessandro Russo:  That’s sharing of curriculum.

Parker Hamilton:  Exactly.

Alessandro Russo:  What they have on their shelf we can kind of use it as inspiration for programming and events.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah.

David Watts:  And just to touch upon it since we’re surrounded by it, the library Go! Kits have been –

Parker Hamilton:  Oh, absolutely, look at those.

David Watts:  That was really successful.

Parker Hamilton:  Yes.

David Watts:  And it’s growing.  I know that it was an initiative that you helped bring in with funding from the Friends of the Library, Montgomery County.

Parker Hamilton:  Yes.

David Watts:  So you’re continuing in your legacy trailblazing.

Parker Hamilton:  Well, you know, that’s very kind.  But as I said earlier, you just don’t do it by yourself.  You don’t do it by yourself.  And you make sound selections about the people that you bring into the system and you give them an opportunity to grow.  You’ve been on the young adult programs, you’ve – you helped with the – at the comic conference, you served on my director’s advisory committee.

David Watts:  I drove the book mobile.

Parker Hamilton:  There you go.  And so just the experience and opportunity and, you know – and I believe in stretching.

David Watts:  Yes.

Parker Hamilton:  And I also believe that I want to prepare staff to walk the doors.  Sometimes you walk through a door and it’s cracked and you got to push it a little bit.  And then, you know, you go through it.  And then sometimes, there’s a wall on that side of the door and it pushes you back, but that shouldn’t stop you.  And so, that development, that training, that talking is just critical for us as a system to improve, to grow, to do our very best in serving the residents of this county.

David Watts:  Well it hasn’t all been roses.  I mean, I’m sure there’s been some challenges along the way.  Would you like to talk about what your greatest challenge was as director?

Parker Hamilton:  My greatest challenge as a director was when we went to the last recession.

David Watts:  Yes.

Parker Hamilton:  The last recession was really hard on public libraries.  Our budget, by the end of the recession, had been cut by 30% and our customers, our users still had the same expectation.  But the greatest pain was telling staff that their position was eliminated.  No, we did not – the county government found ways to place people, but they were no longer MCPL staff.

David Watts:  Right, right, yes, yes.

Parker Hamilton:  And they were the people that we selected, that we trained, that we formed relationships with.  We knew the impact of going from a part-time job – I’m sorry – for a full-time job to a part-time job, you know.

David Watts:  To work.  Yes.

Parker Hamilton:  We get to become family.  And so, we know that Mary was the breadwinner because Joe was someplace else.

David Watts:  Yes, yes.

Parker Hamilton:  And so that was really, really hard.

David Watts:  But you shepherded us through.  It was tough.  Now, we’re back to pre-recession funding levels.  What’s next on your table for the libraries?

Parker Hamilton:  What’s next on my table?  I was telling some folks the other day it’s, “I want to continue the networking that we’ve done with nonprofit organizations with other county departments to ensure that we’re stronger as a county.  And so what I want to do is have a thank you in that working party, you’re just planning it.  I want to bring everyone in the room and have the different organizations who have helped us deliver programs and services like the folks who work at comic convention and just introduce them to each other and thank them for helping us, you know, move forward when we needed help, and we needed help because we weren’t able to do it.  Now, we want to give back to them and we want them to continue to work with each other, you know, serving our county.  I think that we need to do more marketing of our programs and services.  I think we’ve got great events going on, great ideas, and we don’t do the best that we can in that area.  So that, there’s the area of gap that we need to do, and I think this podcast is a good way to start.  I’m excited about the next programs that you guys have lined up.  And so I think that’s going to be really –

Alessandro Russo:  We’re hoping it goes well, so.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah.  Well, listen, you know, you - both you guys are great, so I just think it’s going to be a great opportunity to showcase MCPL.

David Watts:  Well, we’re excited about starting this venture and we’re excited about the opportunities that you’ve given us.  But just, if we can as we prepare to close out – obviously you became a librarian because you love books.  Not true?

Parker Hamilton:  Actually, no.  I do not love books.

David Watts:  You do not love –

Parker Hamilton:  I do not love books.  I love – I love learning.

David Watts:  That’s a shock.  Okay.

Parker Hamilton:  I love learning.

David Watts:  Okay, okay.

Parker Hamilton:  I became a librarian because when I went to the University of Illinois, I did – I was a financial aid and I worked in a library at night in order to supplement our income.  We were on food stamps, you know, we were poor.  As I said earlier, I grew up in the South.  And when I walked into that library and I saw those tools, I was like, “Oh, my gosh.  If I had been exposed to this, I would have really been a sharp student.”  So, yes, I love books but I love learning.

David Watts:  Okay.

Parker Hamilton:  So I see, you know, libraries as a learning place, and a product that we have are books.  And I know not everyone feels that way, but I think I’m a unique director because I did not plan to become a director.  I was, you know, I was asked and it was, I guess, it was timing.  And so having worked on the second floor, I took this job aside as a business.  And so, okay, so what do I need to do to ensure that the products that we have that the tools that we have ends up in the impact that we want to have.  And that’s why when I think about a library before, I think about books, I think about learning.

David Watts:  Okay.

Alessandro Russo:  So would you say you have a favorite book?

Parker Hamilton:  I did not have a favorite book, but I do love Southern writers.  I like Eudora Welty.  I love the Eudora Welty.  And I also like those English literature – what’s the guy’s name?  Was it Henry Fielding?  James Fielding?  Henry Fielding?  Henry Fielding, I think.  Piers Plowman, that was an old book written along with the Chaucer’s Tale – Canterbury Tales.

Alessandro Russo:  Canterbury Tales.

David Watts:  Canterbury Tales.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah.  So, I like reading that type of literature.  But I find myself drawn to two books written by female southern authors.

David Watts:  Okay.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah.

David Watts:  What are you reading now?

Parker Hamilton:  What am I reading now?  I’m not reading anything now.  But last week, I have a guilty pleasure.  I just admire Taraji Henson.

David Watts:  Okay.

Parker Hamilton:  So I borrowed her biography from the Rockville Memorial Library and read it in one day.

David Watts:  Wow.

Parker Hamilton:  I’m a binge reader, you know.  If I want to read it I’m going to read it.  And so, I got it on a Friday evening and went and got my hair down on a Saturday morning back home.  And from 10:00 o’clock to probably around 7:00 o’clock at night, I was enjoying Taraji Henson.

David Watts:  Yeah, she’s from the D.C. area.

Parker Hamilton:  Yeah, in the D.C. area.  She’s just an amazing person.

David Watts:  Okay.  So we want to thank you for being our first guest and our greatest guest today.

Parker Hamilton:  Oh, today.  Bring me back after the end of the series and then –

David Watts:  We absolutely would –

Parker Hamilton:  Then we’ll see what you say.

David Watts:  We absolutely will.  It has been delightful to chat with you, Parker.

Parker Hamilton:  Oh, I’ve enjoyed this.

Alessandro Russo:  Thank you, Parker.

Parker Hamilton:  Nice getting to know.

Alessandro Russo:  Yes.

David Watts:  You’ve brought a lot of insight to us relative to libraries and the strategic plan and we’re looking forward to having future conversations with you about other aspects of the libraries.

Parker Hamilton:  Okay, sounds good.  I look forward to it.  Well, congratulations.

Alessandro Russo:  Thank you.  And we want to thank our listeners.  And make sure to join us next time and do follow us on  And make sure you check out our social media, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Thank you.

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