Re-Envisioning the MLS: Reclaiming Our Purpose

On March 11, Ms. Valerie J. Gross (CEO & President of Howard County Public Library System) lead a thought-provoking discussion as part of the iSchool’s Re-Envisioning the MLS initiative. Co-sponsored by the Information Policy & Access Center, Ms. Gross outlined a vibrant future for libraries through a re-branding, language usage, and alignment with education. Based on the highly successful “Three Pillars” model, Ms. Gross focused her remarks on how libraries can reinvigorate their centrality to the communities that they serve through the strategic use of education-focused language that is commonly understood and valued by policymakers, funders, and residents.


Figure 1. The Three Pillars (Howard County Library System)

Using the example of “Evian” v. generic bottled water, Ms. Gross championed:

  • A shift in language away from “programs/programming” to teaching/instruction, curriculum, and classes to better represent what library programs in fact are — courses offered by the library to facilitate learning in a broad range of areas that include science, math, literacy, and more.
  • A shift in language away from “reference,” which has limited meaning, to research, a term that more accurately reflects what reference actually is and resonates with customers.
  • A shift in language away from “materials” to resources for self-directed education.

Ms. Gross further argued the need to use the term “education” rather than “learning,” as learning shifts the focus to the individual. As Ms. Gross indicated, libraries educate, individuals learn – and that learning occurs through a library’s education services, resources, and activities.

Those libraries which have emulated and adopted Howard County Library System’s approach have met with success in a number of ways, including the view of libraries as essential to a community’s education fabric; the inclusion of the library in the larger education funding process, which policymakers are loathe to cut; and an “image makeover” regarding the value and contributions of the library to its community. All this leads to one critical outcome: a clear and powerful message about libraries, their value, and how they are a critical community institution — not something that is simply “nice to have.”

You can learn more about the approach through Transforming Our Image, Building Our Brand: The Education Advantage, a book authored by Ms. Gross and published by ABC-CLIO.

If you missed the presentation, you can watch the archive here: More information on the Re-Envisioning the MLS initiative is found at, search on #HackMLS.

Next event: March 25, 2015: Why Libraries are Critical for Revolutionizing Learning: Insights from the Learning Sciences. Learn more about this and other events here.

The Re-Envisioning the MLS initiative is sponsored by the iSchool and the Information Policy & Access Center (iPAC) at the University of Maryland.

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