September 25, 2023

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Bring Back the Glory Days of KU Libraries

On April 19, the Lawrence Journal-World carried a story reporting “The University of Kansas hopes to undertake a $40 million renovation of Watson Library, according to a new plan filed with the Kansas Board of Regents.”

On June 8, the Journal-World had a story reporting “The University of Kansas dean of libraries is taking a job on the East Coast, leaving KU looking for a new leader as talk intensifies on a proposed major renovation of Watson Library.”  The story continues, “Kevin Smith has been named the next director of libraries at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.”

Smith will end his tenure at KU on July 15 after serving as dean since 2016.

Whether there is any connection between the announcements about plans for a renovation of Watson Library, the challenge of raising a projected $40 million to carry out the renovation and/or whether there is a lack of understanding or cooperation relative to the role and importance of the library between Smith, Chancellor Girod or Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer is anyone’s guess.

However, there’s no question that the leadership of the KU Libraries is a serious matter.

As the late Franklin Murphy, KU’s greatest chancellor, used to say, “The heart of any great university is its library.”

Murphy hammered home this message throughout his years at KU. One of his first major actions after moving into the chancellor’s office in 1951 was to hire Robert Vosper as dean of KU’s libraries. Vosper had been senior librarian at UCLA.

As reported in the “International Dictionary of Library Histories”, the Murphy/Vosper years “Marked the beginning of the rise of the University of Kansas libraries to national and international prominence.”

This glorious period lasted until Murphy left KU in 1960 for the chancellorship of UCLA and Vosper followed him in 1961 to become UCLA’s Librarian. With the combined efforts of the Murphy/Vosper team, Watson Library and Spencer Research Library climbed the national rankings into the top 30 of the approximate 120 research libraries in the U.S. and Canada. (KU Libraries is comprised of 6 libraries: the Watson Library, the Spencer Research Library, the Anschutz Library, the Art and Architecture Library, the Music and Dance Library and the Spahr Engineering Library.)

It will require increased awareness by many at KU of the importance of the Libraries for the betterment of the entire university. A superior library attracts and holds outstanding teachers, researchers and students. A superior library sends a strong message about the excellence and mission of the entire university.

The chancellor sets the stage and establishes the environment and reputation he or she seeks for the university. Girod will have to make it clear he wants, and will recruit, a truly outstanding individual to become dean of KU Libraries. No second or third choices. He will have to sell himself to the candidates and pledge to give the Libraries a top priority.

The candidate has to believe KU offers a rare deanship opportunity to lead the resurgence of its libraries to a national reputation and in so doing, help strengthen and elevate the entire institution. It’s a win/win for the whole university with the Libraries playing a central role.

At the same time, everyone has to be honest and realize there are many costly buildings, and new or expanded programs already on the chancellor’s wish list. The chancellor and new Libraries Dean will face the challenge of raising millions and millions of dollars in the sure-to-come capital campaign for more than $1 billion.

Which projects will potential donors consider most attractive and desirable?
Consider the chancellor’s “wish list” — most all of it approved by the Kansas Board of Regents:

• A $58 million “Wellness Center”
• $30 million “Student Success Center”
• $15 million renovation program for Robinson Center
• $198 million for a new “integrated science building”
• $350 million for a renovation of Memorial Stadium
• $22 million for KU’s baseball stadium
• $50 million for Allen Fieldhouse renovations
• $18 million for a Kansas Student Union building renovation

Added to this is: $385 million for an additional cancer research building and another $199 million for a “brain health building”, both at the Kansas University Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.

Other millions are being asked for repairs and upkeep on many Mt. Oread and KUMC facilities. Additionally, are the costs of new programs and development of a new “business park” on the West Campus with teaching/research buildings, housing and retail and entertainment operations.

During the period between 1951 and 2022, KU has had a number of chancellors and a number of library directors. According to various observers, the top-ranked chancellors, based on their levels of knowledge of, interest in and commitment to libraries, have been Franklin Murphy (1951-1960), Dr. Clarke Wescoe (1960-1969), Gene Budig (1981-1999) and possibly Archie Dykes (1973-1980).

The top librarians during this period, according to observers, have been Robert Vosper (1952-1961), William Crowe (1990-1999) who also served as vice chancellor for information services; and Lorraine Haricomb (2007-2015).

Far too many ups and downs… winners and not-so-goods.

To be a true winner, the Dean of Libraries (at least at KU) must be an outstanding, nationally-recognized authority on libraries and highly successful in acquiring content. He or she must be an excellent “people person”, an individual who mixes well with the overall faculty, the Lawrence community and is looked to as a great asset for the University. He or she sells themselves, the Libraries and the University. This was particularly true with Vosper, Crowe and Haricomb.

In visiting with others about the importance of an excellent library, there were a number of interesting observations:

• The new librarian should make an effort, almost a pledge to himself of herself, to meet a dean for lunch at least once a month, eventually meeting with all deans.

• Listen to the deans and key faculty about their interests, what is going on on-campus and what’s needed for the future.

• A dean should have a “long term” goal for the Libraries, realize that “content is king” in libraries.

• The dean must have the fiscal means to buy rare books and manuscripts, look to future needs.

• The provost must be an active player in generating interest in the Watson project. The public must be made aware of the tremendous benefits derived from a great library.

All this comes at a time when there is increasing debate about the necessity for an individual to attend a four-year college in order to have a successful and enjoyable life. Higher education needs to do a far better job in selling itself.

Former Chancellor Murphy’s message about the importance of the library should serve as a powerful message on the importance of the upcoming search for a new dean of the KU Libraries.

If KU leaders, alumni, students, faculty, the people of Lawrence, Regents and state legislators want KU to be a great state-aided university, they all should be concerned and nervous about the skills, energy, enthusiasm and excellence of KU’s next dean of the Libraries.