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Libraries = Education: A Game-Changing Vision

January 14, 2015

By Valerie Gross
President & CEO, Howard County Library System

Imagine my delight when ALA invited me to attend President Obama’s “ConnectED to the Future” in November. It was my honor to sit in a reserved seat next to IMLS Director Susan Hildreth (we are pictured in the top left hand corner of the photo collage).

In the President’s remarks, he conveyed that school superintendents are poised to lead the movement to bridge the technology gap in America. But, libraries are well positioned to lead this change as well.

Picture for a moment a future where libraries are the focus of the next ConnectEd conference. Even better, envision a time when libraries receive the local, state, and federal funding they deserve—even during recessions.

This future is well on its way, thanks to the growing “Libraries = Education” movement. It’s gaining momentum and it’s ushering in a new era for libraries everywhere.

A 21st Century Vision for Libraries

What are libraries in this movement doing differently? They are repositioning themselves as educational institutions, just as important as schools, colleges, and universities. As a result, their inherent value is no longer questioned. No one looks at them anymore with a puzzled expression, asking, “Tell me again what you do?” Instead, the library systems enjoy heightened respect in their communities and optimal funding.

The approach is not really new. Public libraries at the turn of the 20th century were established as educational institutions, delivering equal opportunity in education for all. “Libraries = Education” reclaims this original purpose—with a 21st century twist.

The Power of Language

Implementing the approach is simple. It does not require changing anything we do—only what we say—in a way that dispels, permanently, all misperceptions.

The strategy:

  • Repositions libraries as educational institutions and library staff as educators
  • Categorizes all that libraries do under three, easy-to-remember “pillars” (Self-Directed Education, Research Assistance & Instruction, and Instructive & Enlightening Experiences)
  • Replaces traditional terminology and jargon with strategic language that people outside of the field understand (e.g., “education,” “instruction,” and “research” replace words like “information” and “reference;” and “class” takes the place of “story time” and “program”)

Library Journal hails this timeless, self-explanatory approach “a 21st-century model worthy of study and consideration by every library in America, if not the world.”

If the above piques your interest, I’ve written a book on the topic (see below) and will present an ALA Midwinter Pre-Conference Institute on the vision ("Who We Are, What We Do, Why It Matters: Our Distinctive Purpose," January 30, 2015).

As we kick off 2015, I suggest that library professionals make a resolution. Let’s work together to implement a crystal clear vision for libraries that will make you, your library, and our profession indispensable for centuries to come.


Valerie J. Gross, MM, MLS, JD
, has served as President & CEO of Howard County Library System (HCLS) since 2001. An educator and attorney for 30 years, Gross is a member of ALA, PLA, and the California Bar Association.

Developing a new vision for libraries, Gross worked with the HCLS Board, staff, funders, elected officials, and the community to implement the “Libraries = Education" approach. She led the transformation of HCLS to its current prominence as a renowned educational institution, alongside the region’s schools, colleges, and universities.

Gross has delivered 60+ keynotes, workshops, seminars, and webinars on “Libraries = Education,” drawing the participation and input of thousands of library professionals from 45 states and more than a dozen countries around the world. Combining these experiences, she authored Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage (ABC-CLIO, 2013).

For living this game-changing vision, HCLS was recognized in 2013 as Library of the Year by Gale and Library Journal.