February 17, 2018

Valerie Gross | Movers & Shakers 2004

The Pragmatic Idealist


In the two years since Valerie Gross became director of the Howard County Library (HCL), it has won the county’s Community Organization of the Year award, its Accessibility Award, and its Chamber of Commerce’s Non-Profit Business of the Year ACE award for contributions to education, economic development, and quality of life. And for the first time, a librarian, the head of youth services, won the County Chamber of Commerce’s Educator of the Year Award.

These successes stem, in part, from Gross’s belief that librarians must seize every opportunity to make themselves visible. She and her staff serve on committees and boards, participate in local organizations, attend meetings and events, and accept every speaking invitation they get. ‘Effective public relations maximizes awareness of and participation in library services and programs, garners respect in the eyes of the community, and bolsters funding,’ Gross says.

The success also comes from Gross’s ability to build partnerships with other institutions. She’s nationally known for her ‘A+ Partners in Education’ initiative. Working with the county school superintendent, she met with all school principals and media specialists and convinced them of the mutual benefits they would gain from working together.

What the schools gain is extended access to library databases, training for teachers and students, and in-school library programs and book discussions. Students gain online tutoring through the library’s Live Homework Help service, which makes available specialists in math, social studies, science, and English. Students also benefit from prepared librarians who have received assignment alerts from teachers.

The library’s return is a splendid opportunity to show these students (and future voters) that the library is valuable and values them. It also gets in-school library card registration for all students and the kind of usage statistics that justify funding increases. In the past two years, visits to HCL have doubled from one million to two million; circulation has increased 69 percent; and 95 percent of Howard County residents now hold library cards.

Even more importantly, Gross says, ‘the partnership links libraries to education in a highly visible way, shaping an image of libraries as a cornerstone in the education process.’ It has already led educators to equate greater library use with increased school achievement. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is using the program as a case study and is assisting the library in applying outcome-based evaluation methods to student performance. Gross’s goal is ‘to support our assertion that our partnership effectively bridges achievement gaps, increases reading, and improves grades and test scores.’

Many managers claim that their employees are their greatest asset, but Gross lives that belief. ‘To hear from staff that they love working at Howard County Library is music to my ears.’ She believes in regular praise, public credit for work, and ample continuing education opportunities.

Gross has a special credibility with her library board and business leaders by virtue of her law degree. It’s proof that she’s a realist who understands the complexities of daily life, including contracts, torts, insurance, real estate, and labor law.

Why does she choose to practice librarianship instead of law? Because she’s a practical, hard-nosed idealist, who thinks that in public libraries, she can help improve society. She’s already made a flying start.




Current Position: Director, Howard County Library, Columbia, MD
Degrees: J.D., Golden Gate University School of Law, 1993; MLS, San Jose State University, 1987; MM, Voice, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 1986
Author: ‘A+ Partners in Education: Positioning Libraries as a Cornerstone in the Education Process,’ in Children and Libraries , Summer/Fall 2003