County library director looks to future with revised plan

March 07, 2008

The concept of a "grand library to anchor a new downtown Columbia" has spurred Valerie J. Gross to revamp the library's 25-year master plan, but it won't be the first time she has been willing to exchange a great vision for an even better one.

The executive director and chief executive officer of the Howard County Library was nearing completion of graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1986 when she had an epiphany. Realizing she "immensely loved the work" at her part-time job in the school's music library, Gross opted to follow up her master's degree in voice with a master of library science degree a year later.

"I believe my life evolved as it did for a reason," said the classically trained singer, who later obtained a law degree.

She left her position as executive director of the Goshen Library in her home state of Indiana to take the reins of Howard County's six-branch library system in 2001.

"I jump out of bed every day ecstatic to be here and anxious to unleash creativity from my dedicated staff," she said. "I love what I do."

The concept of making the central library "a showcase" in an evolving master plan has garnered support from Columbia's general manager, Gregory F. Hamm, who met with Gross on Monday.

"The central library is the kind of cultural institution that will play an integral role in the community's vision and master plan for a redeveloped Columbia Town Center," said Hamm, who is regional vice president of General Growth Properties Inc.

Gross advocates transferring to a new Columbia library project the nearly 20,000 square feet of virtual space and accompanying funding that were freed up after plans for the new Ellicott City branch library were modified.

"There's no question that this entire vision would be enhanced" by reassigning the extra space and saved money, she said. While funding of the $26 million Frederick Road facility is not final, the $1.9 million design and engineering phase is under way.

Gross said the concept of a higher profile for the 50,000-square-foot main library began taking shape during the week of town meetings on the Town Center master plan that were sponsored by the county in October 2005.

"It was remarkable to hear how the library is critical to so many residents' lives," Gross said of the charrette that drew 400 to 500 people. While the library system's popularity wasn't exactly news - a consultant's study had determined in 2004 that 95.4 percent of county residents were library cardholders and nearly 5 million items had been circulated - the comments at the charrette hammered home that reality, she said.

A $5 million renovation to the central library, which was nearing its October 2001 completion when Gross arrived in the county, convinced her "that nothing more would be done for the Columbia branch," which opened in 1981. When residential construction began not long afterward on land behind the library, off South Entrance Road, she said she viewed that as "a missed opportunity" for expansion.

Schedule problems

Even today, the central library cannot schedule programming for adults and children at the same time because of insufficient parking, she said.

Still, Gross focused on the consultant's recommendation to increase county library space from 0.62 square feet per capita to the national standard of 1 square foot per capita, which requires an additional 142,000 square feet of space, a gain of 35 percent. She began by tackling the "pressing need" for a new Ellicott City library.

Plans now call for a 63,000- square-foot replacement for the 23,500-square-foot Charles E. Miller branch library, in lieu of the 82,500 square feet originally suggested in the report.


The new size was achieved mainly through the proposed transfer of a 300-seat auditorium from the Ellicott City project to a new or renovated central library and a slight reduction in foyer size and overall space.

"I am so fortunate to have a tremendously visionary board," said Gross of the library's seven trustees. "Our members have been incredibly supportive of this new concept."

Support is something Gross said she gets not only at work, but at home from her husband of 20 years, Tri Nguyen.

"He tells me I should never get a part-time job because I would still put in the same number of hours," she said of his teasing about her tendency to operate with a "work is play" philosophy.

She said she works to achieve balance by taking Tae Bo classes, going to movies and traveling.

Nguyen, who manages the family's real estate investments, is a classical guitarist. The couple met on her first day at the San Francisco music conservatory when a professor volunteered him to give her a campus tour, she said.

"I asked him on the spot to get a cup of coffee, and he said he'd do me one better and invited me for dinner," she recalled. "It was love at first sight."

The couple live in Harper's Choice with their son, David Nguyen, a nationally ranked tennis player.

Tennis scholarship

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