With advanced degrees in music, library science and law, and a short stint teaching English in China, Valerie J. Gross jokes that her parents once feared she'd be a student forever.
But these days, Howard County's library director-designate is more about doing than learning -- as shown by the children's programs she helped establish in Goshen, Ind., where she has been library director the past three years.
Gross, 40, is scheduled to replace the retiring Norma Hill, 70, July 1, at a salary of $90,000 a year.
The new director is moving from a one-library town to a much larger, six-branch Howard system -- scheduled to reopen a renovated central library in Columbia in November -- but she's ready for the challenge, she and local library officials said.
"Goshen is a culturally diverse area. There's quite an international climate to the city," Gross, who graduated from nearby Goshen College in 1983, said about the northern Indiana town of 34,000.
With so many Spanish-speaking families, often from Mexico, there, Gross devised two programs to help draw them, and children from often poor families, to the library and to reading.
"People from Mexico have a different life experience," she said, and aren't accustomed to getting free materials from a library.
So she began Spanish-language story times and drew youngsters to get their first library cards. Later, when they learned English, they began attending English story times and borrowing books.
"We're seeing a sea of cultural mixes," Gross said.
She also helped begin a privately funded summer reading program at a school within walking distance of a low-income area. The program was designed to attract neighborhood children who could come in several hours a day and take paperbacks home without fear of late fines or penalties if they didn't return them. It worked with a free lunch program and offered crafts activities.
"Part of what these kids value is a quality -- a caring adult to let them know how important they are and how important reading is in their lives. We figure if they have the book in their house, it's a good thing. Sometimes it's the first book the children have owned," she said.
That's what Gross, married to a classical guitarist and mother of an 11-year old son, loves about the library field -- the chance to be at the center of what she terms "a unique aspect of our democracy" that is increasingly seen as a "community and cultural center."
And she should know something about democracy, having spent five months in central China in 1980, when foreigners in China were few and far between.
Gross said she's eager to forge more links here with the library system, county schools and the community.
Those are some of the reasons she was considered a clear choice for the job from among the 21 applicants and 10 semifinalists interviewed by the library board, participants said.
"I think Valerie has an excellent public persona. She had done her homework on Howard County. She's pretty energetic, organized and outgoing," said Phyllis Greenbaum, a local business executive and past president of Friends of the Library -- one of two residents invited to help interview the three final candidates in Columbia early last month.
"She's very accomplished and articulate," added Faith Horowitz, another local business executive invited to participate. "She came across as just very dynamic and innovative," she said, praising the Spanish-language and summer programs.
"The selection was unanimous," said library board Chairman Charles McLaughlin. "She really was a step above the others."
Gross's acumen as a manager will be tested quickly as the county prepares to move the central branch's 330,000 books, audio and video tapes, CDs and magazines back into refurbished quarters after construction is completed in August.
The county has hired a Connecticut company that specializes in library relocations, and officials said they hope things go better than last summer, when movers misplaced library materials moved to the former Allied Signal building during the $5.1 million renovation.
"Moving libraries is very complicated," said central branch Manager Liz Lancaster.
And despite sharply higher circulation rates at other county branches while the central building is closed, outgoing director Hill said the East Columbia branch won't be open again this summer on Sundays between the day before Memorial Day and Labor Day.
"It's a maintenance-of-effort budget. It requires more money to open in the summer," Hill said. The East Columbia branch has lent 81 percent more materials since July 1 compared with the previous fiscal year, Hill said. The Savage branch circulation is up 28.5 percent, while the Miller branch in Ellicott City is up 14 percent, and the Elkridge branch is up 42 percent. The Glenwood branch opened in August.
With her retirement drawing close, Hill is dreaming of a more relaxed lifestyle.
"I hope I get time to read some of the books I haven't had time to read -- on my porch," she said.