2013 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: Howard County Library System, MD

"We deliver high-quality education for all ages," says the simple, direct mission statement of the library system. Its position as an integral member of the county education system was coupled with the effort by CEO and president Valerie Gross to use "words that work" to describe the jobs of HCLS staffers, the services they provide, and the vision and mandate of the library. They all combine to provide a brand that has made HCLS a crucial county asset and a new model for libraries everywhere. This championing of community alignment, as well as many other impressive endeavors, makes HCLS the 2013 Gale/LJ Library of the Year—a well-supported, sustainable 21st-century library system from which others can and do take inspiration.

"We are education!" That strong assertion explains how the Howard County Library System (HCLS) in Maryland has positioned itself as a central component of the very strong public education system in the county it serves, just south and west of Baltimore and also within range of DC's significant influence. Though the library was once classified as a "community service," HCLS CEO and president Valerie Gross convinced the schools and the county government of what the six-branch system did and could do for public education. In 2002, soon after her appointment, Gross won over both the county schools and the Howard Community College to join HCLS in the collaboration they named "A+ Partners in Education."

"We deliver high-quality education for all ages," says the simple, direct mission statement of the library system. Its position as an integral member of the county education system was coupled with the effort by Gross to use "words that work" to describe the jobs of HCLS staffers, the services they provide, and the vision and mandate of the library. They all combine to provide a brand that has made HCLS a crucial county asset and a new model for libraries everywhere. This championing of community alignment, as well as many other impressive endeavors, makes HCLS the 2013 Gale/LJ Library of the Year—a well-supported, sustainable 21st-century library system from which others can and do take inspiration.

Education works

Because Gross was truly persuasive, HCLS now comes under education in this county, along with the schools and Howard Community College. The three segments work closely on many projects. The model or parts of it have been widely replicated by other library systems.

"I said, 'Here are some ideas' to the superintendent of schools. I needed powerful words to convince the Howard County Government to move us from community services to education. The A+ partnership is now part of Howard County culture," says Gross proudly.

When it began, every new Howard County student was issued a library card as part of registration for school. "It wasn't a form to take home; they got it right there at registration and had the parents fill it out," says Gross.

"At first it wasn't exactly welcome, but when we pointed out all of the benefits, all it would do to improve their kids' education, it was done." County kindergartens changed from a half day to a full day and were able to add a field trip to the nearest HCLS branch to the regular curriculum. Now every elementary and high school has its assigned HCLS branch and a contact person. HCLS established a network with the schools. The schools, community college, and libraries have separate budgets but support one another. The school system contributes half the cost for after-school homework help and other library services from tutor.com. All HCLS signature events are orchestrated in concert with the school system.

The A+ Partnership is a first in the United States and has been replicated in other jurisdictions. Through the partnership, some 50,000 library cards have been issued to students and educators, and more than 652,000 interactions between HCLS instructors and Howard County school and college students have been facilitated.

Words that work

Under Gross's leadership, HCLS defined everything about HCLS in what she calls "words that work," concepts that are brief, understandable, clear, and simple for the 282,000 residents of Howard County.

"We trade traditional library lingo that tends to minimize our value for powerful, value-enhanced terminology that people outside the profession understand," Gross explains, adding,"This instantly conveys our true worth, and requires no further explanation."

Gross began with her own title: president and CEO. "I think you would agree that the terms mean that I am the top person in the organization. I'm not a director or even an executive director who reports to a VP or president." (Gross says she took inspiration from the New York City library systems for the title change, in part.)

"Our position as part of education takes HCLS right back to the original purpose of the public library in America. We use the word curriculum, a perfect example of how we applied words that work. It replaced the nondescript programs and services," says Gross. "Story time is another example. We call it a children's class or children's literature. When you describe it as a children's class, funders will fund it. Our classes for children teach the foundations of reading. That is what story time really is."

Educated as an attorney, Gross says she learned her persuasive skills in law school. "When you are trying to convince a jury, all you have is the power of words. I learned to recognize the power of language, to persuade with words," says Gross. "The greatest benefit of being an attorney is knowing the law! Almost daily, we deal with some sort of legal matter in the area of employment law, contracts, Constitutional law, torts, real property, intellectual property, insurance law, or civil procedure—sometimes even wills and trusts."

[portfolio_slideshow centered=true autoplay=false exclude_featured=true exclude="21393,21392,21391,21390,21354"] All photos: ©Geoffrey S. Baker

Innovative educators

Asked what she is most proud of at HCLS, Gross quickly responds, "The staff. They are the most innovative, creative, dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work with. I jump out of bed each morning to come here and work with these people!"

Called "Team HCLS," the staff includes "nearly 300 talented educators and support staff" of whom 65 percent work full-time and 35 percent half-time. They teach classes, seminars, and workshops for a huge and diverse "student body," provide expert research assistance, and arrange outstanding signature events.

Used and supported

The $18,978,950 HCLS annual budget means the system gets $67 per capita, 17 percent of which builds a first-rate collection of materials in all formats that now numbers over a million items. The awareness drive has meant that 90 percent of the people have library cards and use them. HCLS has consistently won five stars in LJ's annual Index of Public Library Service. The library has doubled the number of items borrowed, with 7.1 million loaned in FY12. That is the highest lending per capita in Maryland. HCLS research interactions doubled as well, to two million. Physical visits to HCLS branches tripled in FY12 to three million, as did virtual visits, which totaled six million. Attendance at HCLS events and classes tripled as well, to about 250,000.

The first result of a 2004 capital plan was the Miller Branch, which opened in December 2011. It matches the caliber and shape of the HCLS philosophy, purpose, and curriculum with an array of spaces in which to study, read, do research, and participate in classes and big events. More than 7,000 county citizens applauded at the opening of this largest HCLS branch (63,000 square feet), with its green roof, historical center, and Enchanted Garden.

Organizing curricula

HCLS delivers education under a curriculum comprised of three pillars: self-directed education, research assistance and instruction, and instructive and enlightening experiences.

"Thousands of library professionals have contributed to the timeless three pillars philosophy we have developed," Gross explains.

"The approach blends the best of the academic and business worlds. It positions the library as an educational institution and library employees as a team of educators and support staff. Like successful businesses, the library stands for excellence, accountability, and extraordinary customer service."

HCLS is situated adjacent to or near a gaggle of legendary Maryland library systems, including Baltimore County and the historic Enoch Pratt Library.

"Our admiration and gratitude go to all Maryland libraries and to libraries across the country and in Canada. Not only has their feedback improved the three pillars philosophy, they have also have shared great ideas with us. For example, our Battle of the Books event came from Michigan libraries and the many benefits of handling passport applications from libraries in California," Gross reports.

The million items HCLS holds under pillar number one, self-directed education, includes special collections in American Sign Language, English as a Second Language, and world languages. HCLS has a health education center and a foundation center plus online resources like Access Science, Heritage Quest, Mango, Wall Street Journal, and online homework assistance. The historical center at the new Miller Branch adds genealogical resources for the growing interest from retired baby boomers. A new mobile library has added new convenience to HCLS delivery.

Under curriculum pillar number two, research assistance and instruction, HCLS delivers personalized research at all six branches of HCLS, as well as telephone and online research along with classes. HCLS instructors teach Mini Milestones and Physics Phun for toddlers and preschoolers. Discovering Great Artists is a class for K–5 students, and Happy Un-birthday, Lewis Carroll, and Math Circle for tweens and teens. A class in holistic bacon gardening caters to adults.

Last August, the class "Kindergarten Here We Come!" event in the A+ Partnership attracted 1,377 to 25 sessions across the system. Participation topped the previous year by 25 percent. Movin' Up to Middle School for rising sixth graders in each branch provides discussion and lessons in study strategies, time management, and other skills for high school ­freshmen.

The HCLS teen time after-school assistance initiative gives middle schoolers the tools to focus on academic achievement. The HCLS STEM digital media lab for teens delivers cutting- edge science, technology, engineering, and math education via video, music, game apps, and ebook projects. Attendance to date is 2,050.

The HCLS Enchanted Garden, at the new Miller Branch, provides an innovative outdoor teaching venue where a bioswale, rain garden, porous surfaces, and compost bins offer environmental education. A pizza garden and a Peter Rabbit patch plus a pond and 65 native species of plants all offer teaching opportunities as well. The garden partners with the Center for Watershed Protection, the schools, and a half dozen other county departments.

The HCLS Project Literacy delivers adult basic education and has provided English-language instruction to some 6,500 adults from 33 countries. It uses one-on-one and group classes to teach not only speaking and writing in English but also basic math. Some 140 HCLS students received high school diplomas through the project; 122 have become U.S. citizens.

Choose civility

Launched in 2006, Choose Civility is one of the key successes under HCLS curriculum pillar three, instructive and enlightening experiences. The program invites everyone in the county to choose respect, empathy, and consideration every time they interact with others. The program has attracted 125 partners to its nationwide alliance and has given birth to a growing movement. Closing out Civility Week in October is a Choose Civility Symposium, featuring a speaker and panel. Some 500 attended last year.

The Well & Wise health education program is another key HCLS partnership, this time with Howard County General Hospital. It presents enhanced and elevated health education throughout the county with classes, events, health screenings, and materials.

HCLS runs a huge range of author events and has created the Rube Goldberg Challenge, in which kids work with everyday materials to create innovative machines.

Over 1,000 students compete in the countywide HCLS spelling bee, which sends a winner to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In the HCLS bumble bee, 200 first through third graders compete for trophies and certificates.

The HCLS Summer Reading Kickoff signed up 4,000 attendees, while the Summer Reading Clubs attracted 30,000 participants. Classes and a Money Matters Fair to provide financial education attracted 850; the DEAR (Dogs Educating and Assisting Readers) nine-week sessions brought in 200 attendees. Exhibitors, food, and performances at the Culture Cafes in partnership with the Columbia Association and the county schools appealed to crowds of 2,000.

Philosophy and plan

The exceptional service that is the hallmark of HCLS is spelled out in a customer service philosophy with integrated, consistent guidance for interpreting policies and procedures and making decisions that lead to great service. It was created by a team of HCLS customer service and instructor and research specialists.

As the HCLS award entry puts it:

When we put on our name badges and step behind a customer service or research desk, we personify our customer service philosophy. We prize its values, operate from its assumptions, and model its behaviors. That clearly leads to the "incomparable customer service" of which HCLS is so proud.

Over an entire year the staff developed Public Education for All: Howard County Library System's Strategic Plan 2010–2015. Every member of the HCLS staff contributed, charting the HCLS course and clarifying its mission and purpose.

Up several levels

Positioning HCLS as a core, integrated institution in Howard County education has not only solidified and strengthened the place of HCLS in the county, it has made it a permanently crucial county institution.

"Everyone everywhere loves libraries," says Christie Lassen, director of public relations at HCLS. "We have taken that traditional love of libraries and increased it. People here in Howard County buy the education idea, and we reinforce it. No one here questions the need for and value of libraries. They understand the curriculum, the classes, and our educational mission.... All of us in libraries talk about going to the next level, but we have taken HCLS up several levels with the help of lots of partners."

Using "words that work" from Valerie Gross has made all that is done by HCLS clearly understandable to the public. It has made HCLS a central, sustainable, and permanent educational institution, one that is strongly supported by the citizens and the government of Howard County. That makes HCLS a 21st-century library model, with a position, doctrine, purpose, and curriculum worthy of study and consideration by every other library in America, if not the world.

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Fran Martin

I use to live in Howard County. Not a great place to live, expensive, high taxes. Only reason why HCLS was ranked high cause of all the tax payers paying for the library. Plus, Valerie Gross has the county executive in her pocket for getting all the money. They need to focus more on the bad schools in HC and the gang and drug increase instead of on a few libraries in the county.

Posted : Apr 13, 2014 06:55

patricia bowie

Congratulations to Team Howard! What a privilege it was to have met you and give us library newbies a tour of your gorgeous facility. Waldorf West Library in Charles County modeled some of your procedures and ways to serve the public. You are an inspiration and a breath of fresh air! The branch is gorgeous! but more important is the highly talented and professional team that makes it all happen. Way to Go Howard:-) At your service, Patricia Bowie, Children's Associate Librarian Waldorf West

Posted : Jun 06, 2013 04:59


It's important to thank the local government for supporting the library. At a time when state and local resources where stretched, county and state governments realized that the HCLS was an important resource for citizens to research employment options, retool, and obtain entertainment materials when home budgets were tight. HCLS has really made an effort to be a valuable, integrated part of the local community.

Posted : Jun 06, 2013 01:28


This is a great articulation of mission and policy. My hope is that in "self-directed education" they include nonformal educational opportunities like Readers Advisory (esp. of nonfiction) as so much "lifelong learning" includes this sort of reading. Too often it is ignored.

Posted : Jun 05, 2013 09:06

Valerie Gross

Hi, Sarah! Readers Advisory is an important curriculum component that falls under Pillar II, Research Assistance & Instruction. If you are interested in this approach, it's set forth in a recently published book: Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage.

Posted : Jun 05, 2013 09:06


I have requested this book ILL but in the meantime I searched the Amazon copy and it seems to me that RA would be more under Pillar I, Self-directed education, but we shall see!

Posted : Jun 05, 2013 09:06

Robbi Shane

wowie...congratulations to all!!

Posted : Jun 05, 2013 06:54



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