B. Parker Hamilton considers herself the most unlikely of librarians. She was not a book-loving child who cherished her well-worn library card and found escape deep in the stacks, for the simple reason that she was born in the segregated South — outside Charleston, S.C. — and she is black.
"I grew up in the country," said Hamilton, 69. "We did not have a bookmobile service. We did not go to the public library that was in Charleston, because of Jim Crow laws. I grew up reading the Bible. I grew up reading the books my mom bought from the local Piggly Wiggly. I grew up reading her True Confessions magazine."
The textbooks at Parker's segregated school were hand-me-downs from a white school. As for her school's library, all she remembers are encyclopedias.
Despite all that, Parker became a librarian and in 2005 she was named the head of Montgomery County's library system. She retired in July. On Friday, the University of Maryland's College of Information Sciences — a.k.a., the iSchool — is launching the B. Parker Hamilton Libraries of the Future Scholarship. It's aimed at master of library and information science (MLIS) students who "show a passion for diversity and inclusion in their academic focus."
The thinking goes: Diverse librarians can help serve diverse library patrons.
It's a stance Hamilton supports. She's one of seven children. Her father drove a truck for Esso. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom until Hamilton's older sister went to college, when she started working as a janitor to help pay tuition.
Hamilton thought she should contribute to the family's finances, too, so after she graduated from high school she took a job as a domestic worker. That didn't last long. (I asked why. "Can you imagine someone almost your age barking things at you?" she said. "It was pretty traumatic.")
Hamilton worked in other jobs — as a telephone operator, in a pawnshop — then her older brother Wesley was killed in Vietnam. "He and I were pretty close," she said. "He knew that I wanted to go to college. I was the beneficiary of his life insurance and so that allowed me to go to school."
She started at Morgan State in Baltimore, then finished her undergraduate degree in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where her husband had moved to do his PhD. Like many a student, Hamilton paid some tuition through work study, working in the library.
"And that was my exposure to libraries," she said. Better late than never.
"Most people who have library experience, they see it as mostly recreational," Hamilton said. "For me, libraries represent learning, information."
Encouraged by a professor, Hamilton stayed at the University of Illinois to earn a master's in library science. Then she embarked on the career that would eventually take her to Montgomery County.
"Libraries are free," she said. "They are the great equalizer. And anyone who walks into a public library should never feel as if they're not welcome. And I have seen that happen. A homeless person should be able to go into a library and be treated with the same respect and dignity as the county executive. An African American teenager should not be followed around in a public library because the staff thinks he's going to get into trouble."
In retirement, Hamilton is getting to be the recreational library-goer she never was as a child. She checks out mysteries and thrillers from the library in the Alabama town to which she relocated to be close to a daughter.
"I have attended a library board meeting down here, and met the directors of two library systems," Hamilton said. "I'm going to see if I can help in some way. The [library] hours are limited. If there is a need in the community to extend the hours, I'm willing to testify."
I come from a family of library lovers. I married into a family of librarians. I feel I'm pretty attuned to the library world, which seems to come under attack with depressing regularity, whether it's through budget cuts, a controversial book some want banned or the more existential issue of what a library should be in the first place.
I asked Hamilton if she'd been following the recent flap over the New York Observer columnist who tweeted "Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools."
Librarians across the country picked up their carefully catalogued torches and pitchforks and metaphorically marched until the columnist recanted.
"He was taken down!" Hamilton said. "That was pretty cool, actually."
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.