With last weekend's Evening in the Stacks "Black Ties, White Diamonds" event that raised $101,000 behind them, Valerie Gross and staff are focusing on the rest of the yearlong 75th anniversary celebration of the Howard County Library.
Special events and mementos — including commemorative library cards, a comic book convention, a cookbook and a time capsule — are in the works to mark the diamond anniversary of a library system that serves more than 269,000 library cardholders, a figure that represents 90 percent of the county's 300,000-plus residents, according to Gross, library president and CEO.
A major milestone calls for a look back at the library's roots and a look ahead to the library's future, said Gross, who took the helm in 2001.
On Oct. 11, 1940, the Women's Civic Club of Ellicott City opened the county's first lending library in a portable building at Ellicott City Elementary School. The budget was set at $900 and books were donated.
In comparison, the library budget for fiscal year 2014 was $20 million, 87 percent funded by the county, and 7.5 million loans were made from the library's collection of 1.1 million items.
Lenna Baker Burgess, a teacher at Ellicott City Elementary, was appointed to lead the library in 1943. Space was leased to house it in various locations over the years until the first permanent building opened in 1962, on Frederick Road in Ellicott City.
Howard was the last county in Maryland to open a county-funded public library, according to Marvin Thomas, who became the library's first director in 1963 and served in that role until 1996. He was succeeded by Norma Hill, who retired in 2001.
"The Howard County Library is one of the best in the country," said Thomas, who lives in Columbia, "and it can't help but be, because our well-educated population continues to demand it."
Thomas recalled that shortly after he began his job, James W. Rouse announced his headline-making plans to build Columbia.
"The beginning stimulus for better library services had already started, and then the coming of Columbia intensified it," he recalled.
Between 1980 and 2000, five library branches were opened as the county's population grew: Central in 1981; Savage, 1991; Elkridge, 1993; East Columbia, 1994; and Glenwood, 2000.
The Frederick Road library was renovated in 1986 by wrapping a shell around the old building, Gross said, and was renamed for Charles E. Miller, a county commissioner and landowner. The current Miller branch library was opened next door in December 2011 at a cost of nearly $30 million.
The original building will house about 60 administrative and support staff when it reopens in April following $6.5 million in county- and state-funded renovations, she said. This consolidation will free up 16,000 square feet of space between the Central and East Columbia locations that will be used to expand space for STEM, Project Literacy and a teen center.
While there's been talk of building a new Central branch in Town Center since 2008, Gross said that "that's still quite a few years out."
Gross, who lives with husband Tri Nguyen in Columbia, said she believes the library's mission statement — Libraries = Education — will be unchanged for the next 75 years and beyond. Self-directed education and research assistance and instruction, as well as providing enlightening experiences, are the pillars of the library's operating philosophy.
"It has a distinctive, crystal-clear purpose, and what's valued gets funded," she said.
Gross worked with staff to position the library as an educational institution through its A+ Partnership in Education program with the county public school system. That effort began in 2002, and Howard Community College joined later.
Library terminology has also been retooled to reflect the strategy's emphasis on education.
The library employs instructors, research specialists and customer service specialists, Gross said. The term "librarian" is never used, she said, in order to stamp out the misconception that librarians only shelve and check out books. The library operates a curriculum, not programming, and offers children's classes, not story time.
"One-third of America doesn't know what librarians do, but everyone in Howard County knows," she said.
It's a rebranding effort that hasn't gone unnoticed. The Libraries = Education philosophy contributed to HCLS being chosen as Library of the Year in 2013 by Gale and Library Journal from among 21,000 library systems in North America.
In January, Gross gave a presentation, "Who We Are, What We Do, Why It Matters: Our Distinctive Purpose," to the Maryland State Department of Education's division of library development and services. She delivered the same speech last May in the Czech Republic.
"People come here from other library systems to work because of our reputation and our exceptional staff," Gross said of the system's 300 full- and part-time employees.
What the future holds
Regarding the future of library buildings in a world where online accessibility to research materials and electronic books is increasingly available, Gross takes issue with those who predict gloom and doom. She labeled as "absurdly misguided" a 2010 Newsweek magazine article questioning whether brick-and-mortar libraries can survive the growing popularity of e-books.
"We're constantly evolving and offer research assistance in different ways now; residents can even take online courses through our website," she said. "But those changes haven't replaced our in-person library services."
Marvin Thomas agreed.
"It's ridiculous to say that libraries — or malls or movie theaters, for that matter — are being replaced [by online access] when you still see cars filling the parking lots of those places," he said. "People are doing both."
The desire for human connections is not decreasing as some people believe, Thomas said, and people will continue their habit of visiting libraries in person to attend events and borrow materials.
The system's Battle of the Books is a prime example of a library-sponsored event that grows every year to the tune of 240 student teams involving one-third of the county's fifth-graders, Gross said. The annual event is held concurrently at five school gymnasiums in order to accommodate everyone.
Other events centered around the library include the 11th annual spelling bee, which will be held at 7 p.m. March 13 at Reservoir High School; the "Brilliant Bites" cookbook, available in May; and Comic-Con set for June 6. A "culminating event" is being planned for October near the anniversary of the first library's opening its doors.
Gross said the system wants to put library cardholders in the spotlight as much as possible as a way of thanking them.
"We plan to solicit the community's suggestions for the time capsule in the fall, and to make videos of people who want to offer their congratulations on our 75th anniversary," Gross said.
"Our success stems from the unsurpassed support we receive from the community," she said.
In a 75th anniversary promotion, patrons of the Howard County Library are invited to take a "selfie" while holding the library's red-and-white 75 logo, which can be cut out from the library's Source newsletter. Those who participate can post their photos on social media using #HCLS75.