As director of one of the most progressive library systems on the coast, Courtney Thomas may call herself a small town girl, but she's got a worldwide vision.
- story by Pat Saik
Born on the Mississippi coast, Courtney entered the world on Keesler Air Force Base when her father was serving in the military. She’s lived in Bay St. Louis since she was three. Her mother, who is still a resident, was a teacher. As Courtney grew up, her mother taught her to read even before she started school.
“Sometimes she would give me an encyclopedia to read,” Courtney says with a laugh. “We always had books in our home; I was — and still am — an avid and voracious reader.”
Her love for the library began when she was five years old. A kind librarian showed Courtney how to find books (remember card catalogs?) and taught her the alphabet using sign language. Courtney had seen a show about Helen Keller and the librarian, Ms. Sherry Schwabacher (mother of Alicein Chambers, owner of the Mockingbird Café), helped the young girl learn more about both Helen Keller and sign language.
Courtney was still in high school when she first worked at the library, shelving books and greeting and helping patrons at the front desk. She graduated in 1990, as Bay High’s first African-American valedictorian. After graduating with an English major from the University of Southern Mississippi, Courtney returned to the Hancock County library as a reference librarian and part-time customer service representative.
A job offer at Stennis working in public relations and marketing lured her from library work and kept her occupied for several years. She gained management experience, too, overseeing some twenty employees during her time there.
In June of 2010, Courtney went back to the Hancock County Library, working in personnel and administering FEMA reimbursement grants. In May 2014 she was named Executive Director of the Hancock County Library System, having held the post as interim director since February 2013.
Courtney’s primary mission, overseeing the network of libraries and library employees, is made easier by her excellent staff.
“I can’t say enough good things about the library staff,” she says. "I know they are doing their jobs and sharing duties when needed. All of the employees are good at their work and are willing to assist patrons in any way possible.”
Her staff allows her to focus more on the financial part of the picture, which is vital to maintaining a high-quality library with a range of services.
“The library has to adapt to what the community needs,” Courtney says. “Our libraries have become hubs, essential gathering places. Unquestionably, each of our five libraries provides patrons a quiet space, a relief from the everyday. But that’s just the beginning.”
The library offers technology classes to help prepare students and job seekers with the basics. Job seekers also can get help preparing resumes and learn tips about the interviewing process.
“The library has become so much more than a repository of books. Each of the five libraries in our system — Waveland, Pearlington, Bay St. Louis, Kiln and East Hancock County — all have special offerings.”
For instance, Spanish-speaking patrons often are drawn to the Waveland Library, where the library’s branch manager speaks Spanish fluently. At the Bay St. Louis library, the monthly “Matinee in the Bay” is free — complete with popcorn on occasion. Since the movies are shown at 2 p.m., many retirees attend (see the Cleaver calendar for full details).
“People may underestimate and therefore undervalue their local libraries,” Courtney explains. “It is my job to make our local officials understand the good value libraries provide. Every dollar that goes to the library is smart money: you get a lot of bang for your buck.
“Part of my mission is to let the public know what we have to offer. I am not exaggerating when I tell you we have a world class library system.”
While her library work is her principal focus, Courtney has taken up ballroom dancing for the sheer enjoyment of it. A favorite leisure activity, she takes learning it seriously. On a recent trip to New York she even managed to schedule some lessons with one the pros from “Dancing with the Stars.” She continues to dance at a studio in Gulfport.
“I also enjoy spending time with my “mal-shi” puppy, Bellamy. Everyone tells me that I’ve spoiled her, but I would like to go on record saying that she came to me that way! We have a lot of fun on our daily walks and drives around Hancock County. I think she ‘knows’ more people than I do now.”
“When I was younger I couldn’t wait to leave Bay St. Louis. Now, I am very content to be a Bay Rat; I love it here. I’m a small town girl at heart.”
Join Our Library's Team!
To learn more about the services that the libraries provide in Hancock County, and a schedule of upcoming events, visit their website.
The Library Foundation of Hancock County accepts monetary donations from the general public to support programs the libraries offer.
The libraries need volunteers for myriad tasks including cataloging books, helping put on programs, and teaching classes in literacy and computer skills. If you are interested in volunteering or in finding out more about what jobs are available to volunteers, call Adrienne Bradley at (228) 467-5282 or stop by any of the libraries and talk to a staff member.