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New MCPL director is well versed in county’s libraries –

by Audrey Partington

Special to The Greater Olney News

Anita Vassallo, who has spent her entire career working in the county library system, is the new director of the system’s 21 branches.

She had served as Montgomery County Public Libraries (MCPL) acting director since the retirement of Parker Hamilton in June 2017.

The County Council approved her appointment on Sept. 24.

As a child, Vassallo spent so much time in the now-defunct Four Corners Library in the Woodmoor Shopping Center that her mother suggested she apply for a job. At 15, she was hired as a shelving assistant, a position she held until she graduated from high school.

“I was a big reader,” Vassallo said, “but I also liked the interaction with people. You can’t go into public library work if you just like books. You have to like people. It’s a customer service organization.”

While an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, Vassallo worked at White Oak Library as a desk assistant. In 1974, she was hired as a library clerk at the old Bethesda Library – her first merit employee position with MCPL.

After earning a master’s degree in library science from the University of Maryland, she was hired as a children’s librarian at Kensington Park Library. She subsequently moved to adult services at Silver Spring Library, and then worked at approximately six MCPL branches before becoming manager of Davis Library.

Prior to her 2017 appointment as acting director of the county’s library system, she was the assistant director for technology and website management in MCPL’s administrative offices in Rockville Memorial Library.

“I’m very pleased for Anita,” said Jan Baird-Adams, manager of Olney Library. “She came up through the ranks. When she took over as acting director, the whole morale and feel of the system changed because she understood what was going on in the branches. She respects the staff as a whole. She is focused on getting our library department back to its former glory and its national recognition.”

Vassallo acknowledges the county’s approximately 370 library staff members as the system’s greatest strength, along with support from the community, county administration, County Council and County Executive Marc Elrich.

“Mr. Elrich has expressed his intention to full fund the county’s libraries,” Vassallo said.

The county’s libraries were hit with major budget cuts in 2009 during a period of recession. Vassallo recalled significant reductions in staff, collections and branch hours, which were gradually restored under County Executive Ike Leggett.

“This year we will restore hours of service to Damascus and Long Branch, the last two branches that were cut,” Vassallo said.

Ideally, she said she would like the smaller branches to offer the same extended hours available to patrons of the larger branches.

She noted other improvements over the past decade, such as streaming services, online classes and mini-renovations to several library branches. Nine branches have been “refreshed” at a cost of approximately $1.5 million. The most recently refreshed branch is Marilyn J. Praisner Library, which reopened on Nov. 16.

Having spent her career in the library system, Vassallo is keenly aware of the area’s changing demographics.

“People from different cultures are continually moving into the county, as well as relocating from one part of the county to another,” Vassallo said. “The challenge is to provide appropriate resources to users of each branch. Today’s libraries are community hubs, serving parents and young children, teens and seniors. We are committed to serving everyone equitably.”

Vassallo has also seen how changing technology has affected library services.

“Technology has been a real enhancement to our services, but the physical book is still at the core of collection services,” she said. “It’s about striking that balance.”

As acting director, Vassallo focused on “keeping the ship on course.” She also brought to fruition some initiatives begun by her predecessor, such as removing fines for children’s materials.

“That was a real barrier to services,” said Vassallo, who would like to explore abandoning fines for all library materials.

As director, Vassallo is working with other county departments, government organizations, and nonprofits to improve early childhood literacy and education.

A case in point is County Councilwoman Nancy Navarro’s (D-Dist. 4) Early Care and Education Initiative to address the needs of children prior to kindergarten. That initiative is in line with one of the county executive’s seven priorities, Thriving Youth and Families.

“There are many players that operate in concert to move the agenda forward,” Vassallo said. “Libraries are a piece of it, as the principal learning environment for children from birth until the schools pick up at kindergarten age.”

While Vassallo misses working directly with the books and the people who frequent the county’s libraries, she is grateful for the opportunity to have a broader impact on library services.

“It’s been a great career,” she said.

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