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Libraries = Education: An Interview With Valerie Gross
Posted On August 2, 2016
Valerie Gross is president and CEO of the Howard County Library System in Maryland. Shortly after she was hired in 2001, a sympathetic member of the county council told her that the library system was “not even on the radar.” To change this attitude, Gross formulated a strategy based on the principle Libraries = Education. The results were impressive: massive increases in library use and funding, designation as the 2013 Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year, and five-star ranking as a Library Journal Star Library for 5 consecutive years. On behalf of NewsBreaks, I paid Gross a visit at her office in Ellicott City, Md., to find out more about the Libraries = Education strategy. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Shumaker: Valerie, thanks for making time for today’s interview. To start, could you summarize what you mean by Libraries = Education?

Gross: Libraries = Education means asserting the role of libraries as key components of the educational enterprise. It applies to all types of libraries. For public libraries, it means we are educational institutions in our own right, on an equal footing with K–12 schools, colleges, and universities. For academic libraries, it means we’re on an equal footing with every academic department on campus, and maybe even more central, because we support all the other departments. We’re central to success for students, faculty, and staff—the university as a whole. And—having been a law firm librarian myself—it applies to private sector and specialized libraries too. It includes being central to continuing education, and even more, that we are viewed as integral to the firm, and our colleagues recognize that the library plays an integral role in the firm’s success.

Shumaker: That’s a powerful vision. But how do you realize it?

Gross: We’ve used a three-pronged strategy. The first prong is to position the staff as a team of educators who see themselves as delivering a curriculum. The second prong is positioning everything we do under three pillars of education:

  • The first pillar is “self-directed education.” Everything we do to provide access to knowledge is supporting self-directed education.
  • The second pillar is “research assistance and instruction.” It’s delivering personalized research guidance and delivering classes, seminars, and workshops.
  • The third pillar is “instructive and enlightening experiences.” It means building community and partnerships—bringing people together for education and discussion. In the public library, the partnerships are with other community organizations. In higher education, they’re with other departments on campus. In the specialized libraries, like law firms, they’re with other groups in the firm and outside the firm.

3 Pillars

The last prong is subscribing to strong, powerful language that speaks for itself. It’s trading our traditional words with a new, intuitive vocabulary that you don’t have to explain. Take the second pillar—it’s “research assistance.” It’s not “reference,” and it’s not “information.” People understand the value of research, and you don’t have to explain that it takes an expert to do research. The language speaks for itself, and we don’t have to explain in order to justify our existence. The concept of calling what we deliver “curriculum,” and not “programs and services,” is another example of this powerful language.

Shumaker: Is it all about language, or does it also include changes in what the library staffers actually do?

Gross: Changing the language only works when you have the extraordinary services to back up your words. You have to be effective and accountable and efficient—your words have to be credible. You have to convey that the library is a wise investment. For example (using traditional language for a moment), if a “children’s librarian” is “doing a storytime,” it addresses important developmental goals. Changing the language is easy because the performance is already in place. If it’s just a subpar story, then calling the librarian an “instructor” and the event a “children’s class” isn’t going to work. But many good public libraries are already offering extraordinary children’s classes, and all they have to do is use the appropriate language so that they get credit for it. Or, “circulation staff” may be delivering excellent customer service, but using the word “circulation” doesn’t mean anything to our customers and doesn’t put the focus where it should be—on the customer service mission. Renaming them “customer service staff” conveys meaning, focuses attention, and creates a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy of still better customer service.

Shumaker: Let’s talk about partnerships. The A+ Partners in Education program with the school system was a cornerstone of your strategy. What techniques have you used to succeed in forming partnerships? Why are partnerships so important?

Gross: If you can’t form a partnership, it’s because your potential partner doesn’t understand why they should spend their time with you. Speaking their language is the solution to that. If you present yourself as a librarian, they will think of all the stereotypes. But if you present as an instructor and research specialist, then they get interested. As you mentioned, the A+ partnership was the first critical component in building our educational partnerships here in Howard County. When I arrived, the library system had tried partnering with the schools, but really had working relationships with fewer than 10 schools, out of about 75 in the public school system. The feeling among librarians was that the school system wasn’t interested. It took us about a year to position ourselves as educators, to develop the language, and to begin demonstrating our educational role. Then we were able to get an initial meeting with the school system leadership. After that, it took another year of meeting once a month with the school leaders to develop an initial plan, with a commitment that we would both implement whatever we came up with during that first year of meetings. So it takes using the right language and talking to the right people to develop strong partnerships.

I have another example from a librarian in Michigan who had attended a workshop I gave. She wrote to me and said that before the workshop, she had been trying to get a meeting with the leadership of her school system, with no success. After the workshop, she positioned herself as an educator, using terms such as “classes” and “curriculum.” Suddenly, she was able to get a meeting with the same people who had ignored her earlier efforts.

There’s another aspect of establishing your credibility, and that’s your organizational and budgetary position. When I arrived, our library system was under the Community Services tab of the county’s operating and capital budgets. I lobbied and got that moved to the Education tab, so that financially, our resources were seen as contributing to the education of our community.

Shumaker: Those are great insights on initiating the partnership. But A+ has been running, and growing, for more than 10 years now. How do you sustain a strong partnership?

Gross: Our partnership with the schools has continued to develop, and it involves staff on both sides at all levels. Every one of the 75 schools in the county has its partner branch library, and the partnerships encompass all three of our educational pillars. In the branch, there’s an A+ liaison, who is usually a children’s instructor. There’s a counterpart on the staff of the school. Often that’s the school media specialist (or “teacher-librarian”), but sometimes it’s a reading specialist or another teacher. At the systemwide level, we have an advisory committee that meets quarterly. Once a year, we meet with key leadership staff at the school system. We review outcomes, new ideas, and plans. So that’s what I mean by “all levels.” We have a similar arrangement with the community college.

And the partnership continues to develop and grow. For example, we have an annual Battle of the Books. It’s now up to six simultaneous locations across the county, involving 40% of 5th graders—about 1,500 students. It takes funding and participation from the libraries and the schools. We’re able to fund part of the $25,000 cost, but we need resources from the schools as well. They contribute the space, participate in running and guiding it, and share the funding with us. So you have to have the leadership involved, and the partnership has to not only be beneficial to all parties, but also equitable.

Shumaker: What about other partnerships, with organizations besides the schools and community college?

Gross: We have an expanding number of partners, and some of them come to us. Because we’re known as a leading educator in the county, organizations want to partner with us.

A couple of years ago, the hospital came to us. Why would they do that? Because we had already been using terms such as “health education.” It used to be “health information.” So we set up a committee, and we came up with Well & Wise as the name of our partnership. They are “well,” and we are “wise.” We came up with a logo, and we have a blog that we write together. We are collaborating to advance health education in Howard County.

Valerie GrossWe have many other partnerships. We are working with a variety of partners to put together a hackathon. It’s expanding HiTech, our STEM education initiative for teens. We have a HiTech board of advisors, with industry and university representatives. It’s viewed as important because we used language that conveyed the importance. We teach coding and nanotechnology and how to build a hovercraft with a leaf blower. Why would a university want to partner with us? They want to attract smart kids to apply to their university. We’re seen as part of their pipeline to reach middle and high school students.

Shumaker: I see how the theme of Libraries = Education runs through all of these partnerships. But we know that education itself is undergoing dramatic changes. Students are becoming more diverse, and they’re seeking a wide range of educational experiences. How are your partnerships affected by those changes?

Gross: I agree that education is changing, and yet not everything changes. One of our customers recently emailed me, asking if the library could organize a club that would watch a course together, and discuss it and work on it together, and have one of our instructors as the facilitator. This is an example of how people want to learn using new technologies, but they also hunger for human interaction. I taught a massive open online course (MOOC) some time ago. The technology and the ability to reach students through recorded presentations was great, but everyone’s favorite part of the experience was the live webinar, when the students could interact with me and with each other and ask questions and get feedback.

So there are two ways that technology and other changes affect our mission of Libraries = Education. One is that it changes how we deliver our own curriculum. We are using technology to expand our reach. We record early childhood classes and make them available for streaming. We live stream educational experiences such as talks by popular authors. So we are keeping the in-person human interaction and using technology to expand. The second is how we support formal education. We’re seeing an evolution of practices, from K–12 through higher education, and we are continuously assessing and looking for the best way. How we provide that support will evolve with the technologies and practices. But the combination of in-person and online seems to be the preference, even among the younger generation of students. They’re saying we are human, and the social interaction is still important to us.

Shumaker: The Howard County Library System’s strategic plan is titled Vision 2020: Education for All. On that note, let’s close with a look into the future. What’s next?

Gross: Since we started working on Libraries = Education in Howard County, our budget has doubled, and various measures of use have tripled and quadrupled. We’ll continue to evolve our partnerships and our perceived value.

In the profession, education is increasingly viewed as the way to express our value. More and more libraries are adopting the Libraries = Education strategy. The American Library Association (ALA) has made education a part of its focus: On ALA’s The E’s of Libraries website, the first E is for education.

As libraries adopt Libraries = Education, they will develop and influence it. The feedback I get continues to improve and evolve. Recently, I got a note from a librarian questioning the use of interlibrary loan and its unfortunate acronym, ILL. It doesn’t mean anything to our customers, so what can we use to replace it? Maybe something similar to National Network Loan.

So we’re never done. We’re always communicating our value as educators. Libraries also have an opportunity to set the example and contribute to the value of education, especially by applying effective management practices. The value of education is inherent. It’s widely understood. In the places where traditional education is being cut, I believe it’s because the investment is viewed as being mismanaged. We can counteract that view by showing the effectiveness of the investment in our services.

After all, we were established as educational institutions. For public libraries, the mission was to educate everyone. Somewhere along the line, the language changed and the focus on education was diluted. Now we can bring that focus back, so that it’s crystal clear: We are education. That’s for public libraries, K–12, academic, and others. Our three pillars are all education-focused. Now we’re recognized for the value we are and always have been, and that leads to having the resources we need to continue meeting the challenges. So in a sense, the future is very much about returning to our roots.

The images of the three pillars of education and Valerie Gross are courtesy of Howard County Library System.

Dave Shumaker is a retired clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a former corporate information manager. He is also the author of The Embedded Librarian: Innovative Strategies for Taking Knowledge Where It’s Needed (Information Today, Inc., 2012), and he founded SLA’s Embedded Librarians Caucus in 2015.

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