Drive down West Fifth Street, on the edge of downtown Winston-Salem, near Broad Street. The sleek glass-front building across from Bib’s Downtown — that’s the house Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin built. That’s Forsyth County’s Central Library.
She didn’t do it alone, of course; many hands were involved. She oversaw the two-year, $28 million renovation of the Central Library with the assistance and support of many community members. That includes county commissioners, some of whom were eager and some of whom had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into committing resources to turn a decrepit, gray block of concrete into a modern living room worthy of our county and its residents — even after voters approved the sale of bonds for the project.
There was also resistance to the two branch libraries, in Clemmons and Kernersville, that were built under Sprinkle-Hamlin’s watch.
But it might not have been accomplished so well without her patient leadership, never giving up on our communities and their need for a reliable, affordable source of education and information.
Beyond the physical structures, she helped develop a library system that can be compared favorably to any in the country, with a well-curated, growing collection of books, music, video and other media, some of which we might not have imagined even 10 years ago. Its resources stretch from the past — with a North Carolina room, rich with unique materials that celebrate our history — to the future, with advanced technology that will sustain us far into the 21st century.
Sprinkle-Hamlin led the way during an era of economic uncertainty, conquering fears and reluctance that led some to say we should cut back on our vision rather than expand. She helped the community understand the library system’s value — especially during difficult times.
There’s plenty for which Sprinkle-Hamlin should be commended. In 2000, she became the first African American and the first woman to head the county library system after rising through the ranks. She’ll also be remembered for her leadership role in the National Black Theatre Festival, founded by her late husband, Larry Leon Hamlin, an association that will continue.
She’ll be remembered by those with whom she worked for the encouragement and opportunities for advancement she provided. “Sylvia was not the kind of person to stand up and be in the front,” her predecessor, Bill Roberts, told the Journal. “She stood behind people and helped them become strong on their own.”
She’ll be remembered for portraying libraries as laboratories of democracy in action, and for inspiring respect and courtesy for everyone who entered the library’s doors.
She’ll be remembered for her style and her smile.
And she’s not done yet. Though she’s retiring at the end of the year, after a 40-year library career, she plans to continue to be active and will work with the Friends of the Library and the O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University.
“I’ve always believed that you should grow your own talent, and that our library staff should look like the community it serves,” she told the Journal. “I will miss the staff and also the customers as well as networking with librarians all over the country and globally.
The county is conducting a nationwide search for Sprinkle-Hamlin’s successor and hopes to have her position filled by January. The search committee would do well to consider those who have worked with and learned from Sprinkle-Hamlin. They’re in a prime position to build on and expand her legacy.