Adrienne Miles-Holderbaum: Welcome to Library Matters, the Montgomery County Public Libraries podcast.
Alessandro Russo: Hello, and welcome to Library Matters. I’m Alessandro Russo.
Lennea Bower: And I’m Lennea Bower, Manager of Digital Strategies, the division in-charge of Library Matters. I’ll be filling in today for the vacationing David Watts for this episode.
Alessandro Russo: Parker Hamilton will be retiring this month after 12 successful years as Director of Montgomery County Public Libraries. Parker began her career with MCPL 37 years ago and during this time, she has seen immense change in the library system. Parker was a guest in our first Library Matters episode when we discussed libraries in a time of change. Today, Parker is here for a retrospective of her career in librarianship and with MCPL.
Welcome back to library Matters, Parker. Thank you for coming.
Parker Hamilton: It’s good to be back.
Alessandro Russo: So, tell us about your career with MCPL. Was MCPL the first library system you worked for? What positions have you worked in at MCPL and which was your favorite?
Parker Hamilton: I began my career as a librarian in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I was the first credentialed librarian at the Douglass Center Library. It was a project funded by Urbana Free Library and Champaign Public Library serving the predominantly African-American community of the Champaign-Urbana area. We called it the North Side. And so, it was my first job and it was really exciting because it was in a recreation center. And so there was a door that separated the library from the recreation center and it’s a one-stop shop for the community.
So I had the opportunity to be a community activist but also be a credentialed librarian. I can remember having programs with Bobby Seale from the Black Panthers being our guest but also helping children and their parents find books to use in order to do homework assignment. So it was really an exciting time for librarianship in that particular area, and exciting for me to be a part of changing and impacting the community.
Lennea Bower: How many positions have you worked in at MCPL leading up to being the director now for the past 12 years?
Parker Hamilton: Oh, well, I started out as a Librarian I. That’s the entry level for librarians and that was at the Long Branch Library, and basically went up the classification scale – Librarian I, Librarian II, Librarian III. Then I became an agency manager at Long Branch Library and agency manager at Davis. And then I entered administration and I did human resources work, strategic planning work, and management of branches. And then I left the library system for a while and was assistant chief administrative officer for the county and then came back as acting director and then named permanent director.
Lennea Bower: And why did you choose librarianship? I mean you mentioned some of the things that you liked about it but why did you choose that as a career?
Parker Hamilton: Not because I love reading, but because it was an opportunity to connect with learning and knowledge. I was introduced to that wealth of information when I was working at the Commerce Library at the University of Illinois. And I just saw all the information and just felt that I wanted to be a part of connecting people to those options and those opportunities. So it was the content of the book and – rather than for the love of the book.
Alessandro Russo: So when you started working in libraries, did you have a specific career goal?
Parker Hamilton: No, I basically wanted to serve people. I wanted to connect people. I never had on my bucket list to be director of a library system. It just happened.
Lennea Bower: Do you have any advice that you would give your younger self, back when you were starting at MCPL?
Parker Hamilton: Think about career goals. I’m not sure I would tell myself that because I think that you need, honestly, to be open to possibilities. I think sometimes we get so obsessed with saying what we’re going to do that we don’t recognize the packet when it falls in front of us because it doesn’t look the way that we want it to look. And so, I think I would probably just do it the way I did it, just, you know, look for the opportunities and prepare myself and make sure that if a door opens, I have the credentials to walk through it.
Alessandro Russo: What are some of your favorite memories working with the public?
Parker Hamilton: I remember when we did a mini renovation at the Long Branch Library and we put in new carpets and we upholstered chairs and paint the building, and everything. And one day after school, you know, the kids come in, and they’re teenagers, they’re supposed to be teenagers, and this kid put his foot on the chair and one of the other kids went over there. “Mrs. Hamilton just fixed this place up for us. Take your foot off of that chair.” And I was like, “Yes.” You know, it was just a sense of pride of this is our library. This is special. And the fact that I didn’t have to do it and it was just, you know, just right on the money. And so that was really good.
My other experience that I really liked in the county probably is not in libraries. It was when I was assistant chief administrative officer. I did a lot of work with the community and I could remember working to bring Prince George’s County officials together with Montgomery County officials to work on common issues, and one was gangs in our area. And so, that experience and just acknowledging that we have gangs in Montgomery County, because you don’t have gangs in Montgomery County, was a good memory because I had a role in listening to the community, understanding the reputation of Montgomery County as this affluent, white, middle class community but knowing that it was the right thing to do.
And working with people who saw that and understood that made me really realize it’s all about the people. It’s all about the residents. And so, there was that growth, that true commitment in serving the residents of this county and wanting to do the right thing on their behalf.
Lennea Bower: So what are some of the greatest challenges that you faced during your career?
Parker Hamilton: Greatest challenges faced during my career? I like to repeat questions. I guess it gives me time to think here. I think the greatest challenge is trying to make informed decisions for 1 million people when they all want different things, and limited resources, and just trying to figure that out especially when not everyone agrees with what the response should be. And so, that was very challenging, continues to be very challenging.
And it was almost easier when we were going through the recession because you had limited resources and you had to prioritize. You had to make those informed decision. People understood that. But now that our budget is over $40 million, the expectation is, “Well, why can’t you do this for me?”
And so, it’s been challenging and not everyone understands the role of technology. We have people who want us to have more technology, but we can’t afford to spend all of our money on technology because we still have a huge population who want prep material.
Lennea Bower: Yeah.
Parker Hamilton: And so, you have to do the best you can with the information that you have and I pride myself of being flexible because I can make a decision today and if I get new information and that decision is no longer reasonable or viable, I do make new decision.
Alessandro Russo: Were there barriers or setbacks that you faced in your career either on non-library or library setting?
Parker Hamilton: Barriers or setback. Well, I’m an African-American female. I’m 69 years old. I have experienced discrimination. I have had people who wanted my voice to be silenced. I have been disrespected. I can remember working at Long Branch Library and the person wanted the supervisor. I walked out. I want the supervisor. I am the supervisor. I am the manager of this branch.
And there are times that people walked out because they did not want to talk to or believe that a person who looked like me is truly the manager of this branch and that happened in Montgomery County, Maryland. So, that was a surprise to me. It was something I did not expect because when we lived in Evanston, Illinois and we researched areas to where we might want to live, we decided to live in Montgomery County, Maryland because its reputation was one of tolerance, being progressive and to face racism was very hard – was very hard.
Lennea Bower: Yeah. I can imagine. That’s not what you’re looking for when you go into work in the morning. So, what’s the proudest moment of your career?
Parker Hamilton: I think when people especially people who look like me come up and say, “You made a difference in my life. Because of the programs and services that MCPL offers, I’ve been able to get a job” or "My child actually got an A on that exam that they were studying really hard for.”
And so, I think it’s knowing that what we do as librarians, as staff of MCPL makes a difference in the lives of people. We’re just not this romantic vision of public libraries. We actually change lives. We transform lives and that makes me feel really proud of the work that we do.
Alessandro Russo: So, why do you think it’s important for customers to see themselves reflected in library staff, the programs, and the collection especially and our resources?
Parker Hamilton: I think it’s important because, first of all, they’re taxpayers and if they’re taxpayers, they should be able to come into our public libraries and find the books and materials that they want to read. And so, I think that for them to know that we know, that they live in Montgomery County and that they use our public libraries shows respect and there’s nothing more important for an individual from my perspective and to know that they are respected.
Lennea Bower: So, you’ve spent 12 years as the director of the MCPL system. What pleases you most about this time under your leadership?
Parker Hamilton: We just started a new pilot where we’re going to – we’re not charging fines for children’s materials that are not returned on time. That was a hard fight for the library system to get approval to do that, but we finally got approval. And it’s important to me because, again, it goes back to respect. Can you imagine a child with a hand load of books in their hand and would like to check those books out and a caregiver or mommy or daddy goes to the checkout counter and we tell them that you have fines on your account and it has been blocked.
And that child is told by mommy or daddy or someone, “You have to put those books back.” Because of this pilot program, that will not happen. And so, we will open the doors to learning, we’ll open the doors to reading and we’ll do it with respect and dignity.
Lennea Bower: That’s a great pilot.
Parker Hamilton: It’s a great pilot. It’s a long time coming. It is the right thing to do because at the end of the day, we want kids to read, right, and we want them to get the information that they need to be excellent student. I’m excited to follow it and see where we end up.
Alessandro Russo: What are some of the greatest advancements you’ve seen or witnessed in your career in libraries?
Parker Hamilton: Greatest advancement, of course, its technology. I think our digital strategies unit is awesome.
Lennea Bower: Thank you.
Parker Hamilton: You’re welcome. And in terms of what we do – I remember – remember this, Lennea, but I can’t remember what the word is now, but I would always ask you guys about our influence on Twitter and whether or not we were influencing the conversation. Because for me, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about influence.
I think the influence conversation in Montgomery County but also conversations in the library world, our library system is known as a leader in the library world, especially in the urban libraries world and that’s because of, you know, the advances we have taken with technology in our system. I think we’re probably on every social media platform, if we’re not on it, we will soon be on every social media platform.
I think the fact that we have robust Wi-Fi in our branches, our digital media labs, our leadership in the area of STEM, the Go! Kits that we have, have put together for our kids and their caregivers and then the workforce development opportunities that we have, the fact that people who do not have a high school diploma can come to the library system and get a high school diploma because not everyone learn the same way and schools, as much as we would like to think, school is not for everyone.
And not everyone can excel in that environment. So to give an option for them to get that high school diploma, to get that promotion, to go to college, that’s what we do. And so, I think those advances are really good.
I love the fact that our profession is attracting a diverse group of people – young people, old people, male, female. We look like Montgomery County. And I think that that’s huge. And I – you know, I probably shouldn’t say this, but the fact that young people want to be librarians, awesome, right?
Lennea Bower: Yeah.
Alessandro Russo: It is awesome.
Parker Hamilton: That’s awesome, right? You know that.
Alessandro Russo: It is awesome. Yeah, very awesome.
Parker Hamilton: You know, and I think people want to do it because we want to make a difference. And we do make that difference. That’s pretty cool.
Lennea Bower: I think you stole my next question which is –
Parker Hamilton: Uh-oh.
Lennea Bower: – how we get the next generation interested in librarianship, and I think you talked about they are, but what more can we do to kind of keep that moving forward with getting people interested and involved and –?
Parker Hamilton: I think being out in the community, going to the schools, and I think just being who we are, because I think if we’re nice, if we’re kind and we set that model of respect and dignity, folks are going to say, “Oh, they’re pretty cool people. I want to do what they’re doing. I want to make that difference that they’re making.”
I can remember one time I thought about being a teacher and I thought about being a teacher because of my teacher. And so I think folks will think about coming to our profession because of us. And so, we’ve got this huge, you know, job to not only deliver outstanding customer service, but always recognize that whenever we’re out there, we’re a role model. And so, we just need to do our best. And we do. And we do.
Lennea Bower: And then to turn that around, for those young people that are interested in it, what advice would you give them? You said you wouldn’t – you said that you felt like you found the things you needed when you need them, but what advice would you give to young people who are interested in pursuing librarianship?
Parker Hamilton: Librarianship?
Lennea Bower: Mm-hmm.
Parker Hamilton: Of course you have to study hard because in order to work in the State of Maryland as a librarian, you need a master’s degree in library science. We have another program, but you also need a bachelor’s degree for that. And so, I think, you know, you need to study hard. I don’t think that you want to say, “I want to be a librarian,” I think you need to be curious about the world, curious about information because it’s that curiosity, I think, that makes the best librarian. You know, just wanting to know and then wanting to help connect what you know to that person standing in front of you.
Alessandro Russo: Do you see librarianship changing in the future or have you noticed changes in librarianship?
Parker Hamilton: I think we have changed. I think that we do not hire people just because they love books. I think we hire people because we want that connection to the folks who are coming into the library. We hire people because of their attitude. We hire people because of the recognition that all people should be respected. I think we hire people who are into humans, who are into people.
And so, I think that we have changed because when I was looking for a job here in Montgomery County, the only thing they asked me about was what books do I read. And now, when you interview for Montgomery County, you are asked that but you’re also asked about technology. You’re also asked about just general knowledge. You know, we’ve got this thing going on now called fake news.
Lennea Bower: Mm-hmm.
Parker Hamilton: You know, we are the ones who help people decipher whether what they’re reading is fake or not. And in order to do that, we have to be up on it. We have to be curious. We have to know what’s happening in the world.
Lennea Bower: Yeah. And we’ve got a series on fake news that –
Parker Hamilton: Exactly.
Lennea Bower: – we’ve started under your leadership, so.
Parker Hamilton: Yeah.
Lennea Bower: And what about for people of color, I mean I know in our county we try – in our system, we try very hard to hire a diverse group. As we’ve already said, that looks like Montgomery County, but I know in the library world in general, attracting people of color to the profession has been a big push over the last several years. Are there certain things that you think can be even stepped up more to bring those – raise interest for young people, especially if maybe they live in an area where they don’t go into the library and see themselves in the current staff?
Parker Hamilton: I think we need to do different type of programs. I think we need to stop calling a book a good book. I think we need to do a better job of selecting books. I think that a book is good if someone reads it. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a book that’s written in African-American English. I think that’s a good thing. But I do know that some people would not select that book with African-American English because that’s not what we speak. And African-American English is a language.
Lennea Bower: Right.
Parker Hamilton: Filipino English is a language. And so I think the publishers need to step up and publish more books that people can relate to. And then once that happens, I think we, as librarians, need to select those books. And then we need to connect the people to those books. And so, I think that white people should read books in African-American English and vice-versa. White people should read books that have black characters just like African-American read books with white characters.
And I just think we just need to come together. I would love to see poetry slam with rap music. I mean, rap is poetry, right?
Alessandro Russo: Mm-hmm.
Lennea Bower: Yeah. Just like Hamilton.
Parker Hamilton: There you go. There you go. Some people might think it’s lowering our standards. I think it’s meeting people where they are. And that’s what we do as librarians. We connect with people where they are. And so, we just need to continue to do that.
And I also think we need to ask more. I think we, as librarians, sometimes think that we have all the answers. And if we just ask the question, we might learn something, and then you’ve got a lifelong learner in someone who might want to become a librarian.
Alessandro Russo: So, enough about libraries. What are you looking forward to most in retirement?
Parker Hamilton: Being with my grandkids and my kids. I’m from the south. I’m from a little place called Red Top, South Carolina, and so I look forward to going back to the south. I look forward to eating peaches and strawberries and collard greens and okra and just have it fresh. And so, I look forward to that. I’m just looking forward to just being for a while, just be – just to lean into whatever it is. Then, in a couple of years or maybe a year, I’ll see where I end up.
But I do want to do some public service work. I’m going to be living about 20 minutes from Tuskegee, Alabama and I think that I might be able to make a difference there in the lives of some people. So I want to do that.
I also love historically about colleges the marching bands.
Lennea Bower: Oh yeah.
Parker Hamilton: And so Tuskegee University has outstanding marching band. So I’m looking forward to go in football games.
Lennea Bower: Just to watch the marching band?
Parker Hamilton: Just to watch the marching band. I don’t care who they’re playing, I just want to go and watch the marching band.
Lennea Bower: So who are the marching band competitions, you know, are you going to watch?
Parker Hamilton: I know drum, drum, I know. So I am looking forward to that. I understand that there is an organization called the Eastern Alabama Performing Arts that’s supposed to be really great, bringing great programs and everything. So I will do that. But that mainly I’m just looking to spend time with the grand kids and the kids and to just be for a while.
Lennea Bower: Do you have a library card for your new system down there yet?
Parker Hamilton: Not yet. But I will get one as soon as I get down there. Well, I’m looking forward to it because, you know, I want to read the new James Blake book with Grace or something like that where he writes about the activism of athletes. And so I don’t know why but I am fascinated by that. I heard him on NPR.
Lennea Bower: I think I heard that in [indiscernible] [0:27:47].
Parker Hamilton: Yeah. And so I want to read that and so that might be the first book that I’ll try to check out for my new public library.
Alessandro Russo: So if you had a favorite podcast, what would it be?
Parker Hamilton: Of course. What is this podcast called? It’s Library Matters, right?
Lennea Bower: Yes, that’s correct.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Parker Hamilton: All right. Well then, of course, this is my favorite one of all. That’s not – that’s a no brainer.
Lennea Bower: Any other podcasts? Were there ones that you didn’t bring into being and –
Parker Hamilton: I don’t know whether to call them podcast or not, but I have just become an NPR junkie. I listen to them on Saturdays, you know. I visited a car show, you know, the brothers from – the brothers from Boston.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah, yeah.
Lennea Bower: Oh yeah, from Boston.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah.
Parker Hamilton: Yeah. I even listen to that on Saturdays. So I just turn the radio on and listen to whatever comes up. But I was telling someone the other day, I’m looking forward to having space in my brain to actually remember some of those things that I listen to because right now, I have all the library stuff in my brain and focus on that. And so other things kind of go out because there’s no space. So I’m looking forward to have more space in that brain.
Lennea Bower: A lot of those NPR shows, they have some of those hosts that have podcasts that they are too separate from the shows, you can dive even deeper into some of those –
Parker Hamilton: All right.
Lennea Bower: – topics per –
Parker Hamilton: Okay. So you got to have to share those with me and we have to look for it because you’re a big podcast listener.
Lennea Bower: I am a big – well, I think Alessandro and I both are. I’m a big in a lot of news and that’s how I consume a lot of my news is through podcast.
Parker Hamilton: Right. All right. All right.
Alessandro Russo: I think I’m more of the diverse kind of podcast. I love like the haunted stories and like the ghost stories, the ghost hunter ones. There’s one that it’s all about Kurt Vonnegut Publication.
Lennea Bower: Kurt Vonnegut.
Alessandro Russo: Yeah. And it’s amazing because you read those stories and then you get these guy’s new perspectives and you’re just like blown away.
Parker Hamilton: Wow.
Alessandro Russo: That they just take another light – just another light into the book.
Parker Hamilton: Oh, there’s just so much out there you know, you have to prioritize a little, but I think other than that, you’re up all day and up all night.
Alessandro Russo: Right.
Parker Hamilton: And – but I think that radio is fascinating. And, you know, I don’t watch television that much anymore except for a few things. You know, I love House of Cards and NCIS. I watched it on channel 9 but I also watched it on WUSA. So – and so I’m, oh, I’ve seen that one before but I still watch it.
Lennea Bower: Do you watch all the spinoffs too or just the originals?
Parker Hamilton: I watch all the spinoffs and I also watch the one that was Michael Weatherly, Bull.
Lennea Bower: Weatherly.
Parker Hamilton: I watch that as well.
Lennea Bower: I used to watch Michael Weatherly on Dark Angel, which is what he was on before he was on NCIS.
Parker Hamilton: Oh well, yeah, I think he’s a very good actor. I like him. I was worried when he left NCIS, but he’s doing a great job.
Lennea Bower: So do you have a favorite library app? So now we’re going – we’re moving from podcast apps –
Parker Hamilton: Actually, I do not. What was the answer?
Lennea Bower: I don’t know the answer. I’m just asking, do you use any of our apps? Do you use any of our – I mean obviously you know what our electronic services are but do you use them outside of the library?
Parker Hamilton: I follow you guys on Facebook.
Lennea Bower: Through you.
Parker Hamilton: I follow us on Facebook. I follow us on Instagram. I follow us on Twitter. I do not follow us on Pinterest.
Lennea Bower: You don't want to pin books with us?
Parker Hamilton: I am. I do not do that. I look at our website all the time. I love the spotlight section on it. I love our shout out blogs. I absolutely love the shout out blogs. I learned so much about our collection. And I learned so much about the staff member that’s writing it. And I go and I follow them. So I remember Anita Vassallo who’s going to be the acting director for Montgomery County Public Libraries. She did a shout out blog on apps and as a result of that, I had our student campaign on apps that was called Get Appy.
Lennea Bower: Yeah.
Parker Hamilton: But I did it as a result of reading her shout out blog.
Lennea Bower: I knew about that campaign, but I did not know about the shout out blog, why they seem to – that was right –
Parker Hamilton: Exactly.
Lennea Bower: – during MCPL, but –
Parker Hamilton: Yeah, it was like, oh wow, everyone needs to know this. Let’s do this. And so I love the shout out blog.
Lennea Bower: Well, shout out to our podcast producer, Mark, who is the editor of the shout out blog.
Parker Hamilton: Way to go, Mark.
Lennea Bower: As well as the producer of the podcast.
Parker Hamilton: Of the podcast.
Lennea Bower: So –
Parker Hamilton: Yeah. So I do like that a lot.
Alessandro Russo: Is there a book out there that you can say has inspired or changed you the most?
Parker Hamilton: There’s a book out there that I go back and read at different stages in my life. It’s Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Gift from the Sea or the gift of the sea. I think it’s Gift from the Sea. It’s a small book but if I go back and read it at different stages in my life and it always comforts me. It makes me feel like I’m not alone with what I’m dealing with. So I guess it would be that book. But I couldn’t get even the title right. Is it Gift from the Sea or gift of the – do you know?
Alessandro Russo: I think it was Gift from the Sea.
Parker Hamilton: Gift from the Sea.
Lennea Bower: We’ll definitely get it right in the notes, go to app or so.
Parker Hamilton: I think it’s Gift from the Sea.
Lennea Bower: Which is probably something we should say to everyone with the podcast, we always put the titles that are mentioned in here in the office and the notes, so people are listening and can’t write fast enough.
Parker Hamilton: Can’t write fast enough, so get it right for – get it right for me. But it’s a book that I’ve gone back to over the years. When we were living in Evanston, Illinois and we were getting ready to leave, this is 1980, one of my friends gifted it to me.
Alessandro Russo: Well, we want to thank you for being our guest and remember, everyone, keep the conversation going by following us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. Also, please review and rate us on iTunes. We love to know what you think. Thank you for listening to our conversation today and see you next time.