Over the last two decades, Neel Parikh has led the Pierce County Library System into the digital and computer age, added new library branches and increased community-focused services for children.
With that transformation in place, Parikh, 65, announced Wednesday she will retire Nov. 1 as director of the 18-branch system.
“I wanted to leave the library stronger than when I came in,” Parikh said. “I think we’re there. I’m very proud of that.”
The local library system is the fourth-largest in the state and serves a district of 555,000 people.
Parikh made her retirement announcement Wednesday at the library’s Board of Trustees meeting.
“She’s just been a terrific leader of the library,” said board chairwoman Linda Ishem. “She’s really worked hard to position the library to continue without her. Still, her absence will be a real blow.”
The agency plans to hire a consulting firm conduct a national search and have a new director in place soon after Parikh leaves.
When asked about changes during her tenure, Parikh singled out connections the library has forged with communities.
“People are turning to the library and saying ‘we need the library to help us with this,’” Parikh said. “That makes me feel really good. That’s what I wanted to see happening.”
Parikh, who started as a children’s librarian in 1971 in California, has stressed early learning services for babies on up.
Digital advances -- eBooks, downloadable materials and computerized catalogs -- have been major changes during her tenure. But Parikh said brick-and-mortar libraries will continue to be needed.
The system’s libraries are packed with people and need to be larger, she said.
“We have been there and changed and morphed over time,” Parikh said. “Many people come to the library who have nowhere else to go.”
Parikh became executive director of the Pierce County Library System in October 1994, when she left her position as chief of branch libraries at San Francisco Public Library.
Back then, the worldwide web was in its infancy and there were no eBooks. The system now has more than 550 public computers. New library branches have opened in DuPont, Milton-Edgewood and Fife.
Last April, the system was one of 10 winners of the national medal for museum and library service. The award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services recognized outreach to the community.
The institute praised the library system for supporting a diverse community that includes Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a growing population of children, job seekers, business owners and older adults.
On Wednesday, Parikh accepted a Creative Leadership Award from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation on behalf of the library system. The award includes $50,000 for the system.
Parikh oversees 349 full- and part-time employees and an annual operating budget of $26.7 million. Her annual salary is $160,047.
While the agency has been forced to make budget cuts since 2008 due to declining tax revenues, Parikh didn’t reduce hours. The system did eliminate bookmobile service.
Parikh said she plans to continue residing on Day Island in University Place, where she lives with her spouse and longtime partner, Patricia Guy. They were married in November.
Parikh said it’s simply time for her to retire, even though she loves what she does.
“I don’t want to work until I’m 100,” she said.