By Bethany Dotson
At the end of January, I had the unique pleasure to travel to snowy and frigid Chicago to interview Valerie Gross, President and CEO of Howard County Public Library (MD). We were there to discuss Valerie’s ideas, laid out most prominently in her book, Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage.
I work with many wonderful experts and leaders in my position at Gale; I have the privilege of interacting with librarians across the country and in every industry. That being said, I have never, in my three years at Gale and certainly in my lifetime (the duration of which I’ll keep to myself), met anyone as passionate about his or her message and mission as Valerie.
Valerie lives, breathes, and walks the Education Advantage mission. In the video of our session, you’ll notice most of the time all I could do was nod along in agreement—I certainly couldn’t have said any of it any better. Valerie argues that the best way for a library to promote itself is to very clearly brand itself as an educational institution—which, of course, it is. Not supporting education—but an educational institution equivalent to any school or institute of higher education.
In the same way that Evian tells a compelling story about the value of their water (“luxury mineral water from the heart of the French Alps”) and thus commands a premium price, libraries have an opportunity to tell a compelling story about the value they bring to their community by providing educational opportunities through self-directed, instructor-led, and experiential learning experiences.
To support this idea, Valerie made simple linguistic changes in her libraries. The Reference or Information Desk, for example, becomes the Research Desk. Story Hour becomes Early Childhood Classes. She emphasizes throughout the presentation that transforming your library, as she sees it, doesn’t mean doing anything different—it means using slightly different language to talk about your library.
Among Valerie’s controversial ideas is her rejection of the phrase “remaining relevant,” which I admit to using in a webinar title last fall. Her argument? Would you ever invest in a company or industry whose main line to the press was that they were working on “remaining relevant?” It’s an admission of distress and challenge before that objection is ever presented. Instead, she suggests telling your community that you “design and deliver a world-class curriculum for the benefit of everyone in our diverse community.”
Take a few minutes to watch the video, below—I can’t promise that you’ll agree with everything that Valerie says, but I can promise that she’ll make you think about how you talk about your library—and in the end, that’s all we ask.
About the Author
Bethany is an avid reader, coffee enthusiast, and travel maven. She’s a proud UMich alum with a BA in English & Spanish. While currently working on her MBA, she looks forward to graduating so she has time for hobbies again!