INTERVIEW: Public library, necessary resource in any society – African-American Library Director

Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin is the Director, Forsyth County Library, North Carolina
Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin is the Director, Forsyth County Library, North Carolina.

Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin is the Director, Forsyth County Library, North Carolina. She is the first woman and indeed first African-American to head the County Library system which was founded 120 years ago.

Ms Sprinkle-Hamlin grew up in a segregated America when black and white people were legally not allowed to live together or use the same public institutions.

She has won many awards for her professional, cultural, and civic engagements. The Central Library is one of the most modern libraries anywhere in the world, with the latest technologies, and beautifully-designed spaces to accommodate the needs of users.

In this interview, she speaks on her background and how the library she heads is shaping young lives and adults alike. Excerpts:

PT: Where were you born?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: I was born in Forsyth County, in North Carolina. I attended Carver Consolidated High School from the first grade to the twelfth grade. It was a family school. Our teachers knew our parents and grandparents. This had a positive impact on our development because our teachers were like our favourite aunts.

It took me an hour on the bus to get to school every day because schools were segregated in those days. There were white schools all around us but we had to go to the black school. But we didn’t care. We enjoyed being together.

The bus picked us up at 7 a.m., and in those days, we had teenage drivers. Our families and teachers knew one another, and the adults cared for us and protected us from the harsh racism going on outside our community.

PT: Did you have a library in your school?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: Yes, we had a school library, and I was a volunteer there. We also had a ‘bookmobile’, a bus that brought books from the public library to our community during the summer months.

PT: Did you enjoy going to the library as a child?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: Yes, I did. We were too poor to travel anywhere, so I read. Books opened up my eyes to the world. I could go to any country I wanted by reading about it. I enjoyed reading as a child.

PT: What was your favourite book as a child?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: It’s called ‘Box Car Children’ written by Gertrude Warner.

PT: Could you tell us about your tertiary education?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: I attended Winston-Salem University and studied to be a teacher. During my days as a student, I worked in the college library to earn some money. I graduated early and taught for two months when I discovered I did not like teaching.

The librarian, who was also my mentor, suggested I should go to Library school for graduate studies. I applied to Clark Atlanta University in Georgia to do a Masters degree in Library Science and I was accepted. I received two scholarships to attend.

PT: What did you do when you finished?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: My first job was as a Children’s Librarian at the Free Library of Philadelphia. From there, I became the Director for the Instructional Media Center for the Philadelphia Public Schools. In 1977, I came back to North Carolina as an Assistant Director and Public Service Librarian at Winston -Salem State University, my alma mater.

I joined the Forsyth County Public Library System as the Head of Department for Children’s Outreach in 1979. I was promoted a year late to Assistant Director and to Associate Library Director in 1984. I became the Director of the Forsyth County Library system in 2000.

PT: Could you tell us about the Forsyth County Library system?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: There are nine branches and a Central Library. We also have two mini libraries in recreational centres, opened for two to three hours a day. Kids go there to use the computers for their homework and to participate in library activities.

We have an adult outreach department which provides library services to our homebound and institutionalised customers. We also provide bookmobile service to our Spanish-speaking population. We serve a population of 369,113, with 182,743 registered borrowers. Last year we circulated 1,546,131 items and had over 1,235,940 visitors.

The central Library has 103,000 square footage with conference rooms, a terrace, café and an auditorium which seats 200 people comfortably. We have over 100 computers for public use here at the Central Library. As you can see, the Central library is located downtown close to neighbourhoods, churches, and the convention centre.

We have a children’s department which caters to children from infancy to age 12. Our goal is to foster the love of reading and learning at an early age. The department has a collection of materials for the educational, informational and recreational needs of not only the children but for adult caregivers as well.

We have programmes such as story times and a Summer Reading Programme for the children. Teen Central Department is for teenagers who want to study, use computers, meet with friends, and borrow books, magazines, and other materials for use. It caters to middle school and high school students. It is a very inviting space with gaming stations and equipment for filmmaking provided.

PT: Impressive.

Sprinkle-Hamlin: The central library also houses the information services department which provides knowledge and information on many important aspects of life. These may be legal, financial, or medical. People even come here to do research about their travel plans.

There are internet stations specifically dedicated to career development and research projects. This department also has a vibrant section that houses the largest retrospective fiction in the Forsyth County Public Library System.

We have contemporary best selling authors and old favourites. We have books on fiction, philosophy, religion, literature, biography, arts and recreation, adult basic education and a foreign language collection.

Our periodical and public documents can be found in this department. The early founders of the library system had an objective to enrich the lives of citizens, and I quote here, by “enabling them through access to well-assorted books and periodicals to acquire broader, stronger interests in the state, national, and world affairs.” We are proud to say we have continued to fulfil this mission.

PT: Who uses the library?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: Everyone. The population is diverse, with varied interests. Organisations hold their meetings here. Toddlers go home with books. Last week, in our Maker Space, a sewing group came here to meet and sew. Researchers come here and the elderly use it as an intellectual and social resource.

We have a recording studio for people with creative impulse and provide books that are too expensive for people to buy. The resources here are for everyone and they are free. We have North Carolina Department where people can do research on their genealogy, their properties, the history of their towns, and do research using our microfilm collection of newspapers and magazines that go back a century. The Central Library also has a computer lab, an instructional kitchen, and gallery.

PT: It is such a beautiful library. The architecture is world class. How is it funded?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: Ninety-four per cent of our funding comes from the County. Our community voted in 2010 for a $40 million bond referendum for new and improved library facilities. The central library is a result of the bond.

We are also building two new branches to replace our Clemmons and Kernersville branch libraries and improve the remaining seven branches. We also get financial support from organisations, individuals, foundations, the state and the federal government.

We also get grants from the federal government and donations from individuals. We have ten Friends of the Library groups who provide financial and material support for the different locations.

PT: What advice will you give to a community that wants a library?

Sprinkle-Hamlin: First, do a survey to find out what people want in their library. That is very important. A library serves the community in which it is located. People’s input matters at the planning stage. This library gets most of its funding from the county. The rest is from the state.

We have a seven-member advisory board appointed by elected commissioners of the Forsyth County. After doing a survey, you need a buy-in from the government. You need to explain why you are doing what you are doing. People want libraries. It’s a public good.

In the 1800’s, a man named Andrew Carnegie went around America giving money to establish public libraries. By the way, two of the oldest libraries in the ancient world were in Africa: in Timbuktu, Mali, and Alexandria, Egypt. Most people don’t have private libraries as rich people do. The public library is a resource necessary in any society.

PT: Thank you.

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