VCU Libraries Dean Ulmschneider's career parallels VCU's rise in national prominence

November 30, 2019
John Ulmschneider standing at a podium in front of a screen.

After an exemplary 20-year career at VCU, John Ulmschneider, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, has announced his decision to retire effective June 30, 2020.  

Dean Ulmschneider began his  role at VCU in 1999, having previously served in management roles at the North Carolina State University Libraries. “His leadership at VCU Libraries has played a central role in the progression of the university into the national spotlight,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Gail Hacket. “In additional to oversight of the award-winning expansion of James Branch Cabell Library, which was completed in 2016, John led the successful effort to achieve membership in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL). VCU joined Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia as the only ARL institutions in Virginia, and became the first U.S. university to join ARL in over 15 years.” 

The expanded and renewed Cabell Library was recognized in 2016 with the highly competitive New Landmark Library Award, along with Hunt Library at N.C. State University and three other nationally celebrated academic library buildings. Lauded by respected Richmond-based architecture critic Edwin Slipek Jr. as "an instant landmark," the building--in addition to its architectural distinction--is filled with furnishings, study rooms, technology and amenities to support the patron experience and it has become a nexus for the VCU academic community and central Virginia residents. In its 300-seat lecture hall and other spaces, VCU Libraries hosts close to 600 academic events, meetings and other programs each year, many of them open to the public and all in direct support of student success, community engagement or professional development and advancement for the university.  

“John’s vision of creating a library that would be the center of significant gatherings is not only sound stewardship of public dollars but also unusual for academic libraries, which are often closed and quiet spaces meant predominantly for research,” says Gregory Kimbrell, who manages the libraries’ events. Under Ulmschneider’s watch, VCU Libraries has introduced a significant series of free public events including a Black History Lecture that will mark its 19th year in 2020 and the Sanger Series, in partnership with the VCU Office of Research, that addresses medical ethics and trends that affect research, scholarship and creative expression.

In sync with its role as an academic literary center, Ulmschneider led VCU Libraries in partnering with VCU’s Department of English in two national literary awards: the Cabell First Novelist Award, which honors an outstanding debut novel, and the Levis Reading Prize, honoring a book of poetry. The former takes its name from the maverick multi-genre Richmond-based novelist James Branch Cabell, whose work helped set the stage for contemporary fantasy literature, and the latter is named for influential poet Larry Levis who served on the creative writing faculty at VCU until his tragic death in 1996. Both awards are presented on behalf of VCU’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program.

On the MCV Campus, Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences has thrived under his leadership. Ulmschneider’s recruitment of Teresa L. Knott as director of TML, a distinguished national leader in health sciences librarianship, set the stage for creating a national model for library engagement with the patient care and research missions of a major health sciences research center. Spaces have been renovated. Staffing has grown to provide robust support that advances faculty success in both clinical and research enterprises. Health sciences librarians have become active and sought-after partners in medical education at the university’s five health care schools in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, and health professions. The collections, among the strongest in the nation, have been carefully curated by librarians knowledgeable in health sciences disciplines to nurture new vigor in health sciences research. As Tompkins-McCaw Library enters its ninth decade, VCU has embraced its invigorating presence on the MCV Campus, and has committed to a new and inspiring design for a future health sciences library that will become an exemplar for library spaces at major medical research centers in the 21st century. 

In support of the library system,Ulmschneider introduced a new era of philanthropic support.  During his tenure, the libraries’ development office grew from one part-time employee to a full time staff of three with a focus on annual giving, stewardship and major gifts, providing for a more well rounded and donor focused development operation. “John came to VCU Libraries at a time when development operations at VCU were beginning to transform the campus,” says Director of Development and Major Gifts Kelly Gotschalk. “He saw the value of the work being done by development professionals across the university and over time added staff to allow VCU Libraries to pursue the opportunities that led to such achievements as meeting our $1 million challenge grant in 18 months, shattering all previous records for libraries fundraising. He understands the complexities and nuances of development work and that working closely with the development staff is the first step toward meeting goals.” Evidence of effective development efforts is the recognition of Friends of VCU Libraries with the 2019 Virginia Library Association Friends of the Library award. Normally awarded to public library Friends group for the expansive public engagement these groups create, VCU’s Friends is the first academic library Friends group to receive this honor in more than 25 years.  

Largely due to Ulmschneider’s leadership in strategic direction and the development of faculty and staff, VCU Libraries received the 2018 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award from the Association of College and Research Libraries, a highly competitive recognition that annually celebrates the achievements of an exemplary university library among nominees from across North America. Previous awardees include some of the most prestigious institutions in the nation, and in Virginia, the University of Virginia Libraries is the only other university library to have been recognized by the ACRL award. Among the initiatives cited in the award nomination was the creation of the new Scholarly Communications and Publishing division, which supports VCU faculty, staff and students in disseminating open scholarship. Its programs include the Open Access Author Publishing Fund to encourage publishing in open access journals; the “Mapping the KKK” digital humanities visualization project, in collaboration with VCU’s history department; and the “Social Welfare History Project,” a national online portal documenting the social welfare movement’s impact on the United States. The latter received national notice from the Center for Research Libraries in 2018 for providing outstanding access to historical primary source materials.

During Ulmschneider’s tenure, VCU Libraries’ collections surpassed the landmark of 3 million volumes, and the libraries serve 2.2 million patrons annually. Some 85 percent of VCU students use the libraries’ buildings or e-resources every week. The libraries’ archives and special collections operations have also grown in stature and significant collections. Among notable achievements are the establishment of a University Archivist position; creating a world-class collection of book art; building one of the nation’s largest, most diverse, and most distinguished collections related to the comic arts; growing one of North America’s largest and deepest collections in health sciences literature and medical artifacts; establishing a significant collection of paintings and other artwork; and supporting distinguished collections of diverse and under-represented communities, including the LGBTQ+ and African-American communities in Virginia and the Southeast.

In addition to his work overseeing one of the most accomplished and engaged research library systems in the country, Ulmschneider has been an active contributor to national, state and regional library circles, firmly positioning VCU as a respected leader among academic libraries. His service to librarianship has focused particularly on regional collaborations that strengthen research library efficiencies, improve revenue streams, and develop policies affecting use of and expanded access to the scholarly record. Among many other roles, Ulmschneider has served as

  • president-elect, president, and past-president of the Association of Southerneastern Research Libraries from 2009 to 2012;
  • member of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) from 2014-2017;
  • chair of the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia Library Advisory Committee, 2007-2009;
  • an active member of the Virtual Library of Virginia Steering Committee and several subcommittees, and a long-standing leader in advocating for expanded support of the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) at the State levelco-chair of the Virginia Library Association’s Legislative Committee;
  • SOLINET Inc. Board of Directors member from 2001 to 2005, including treasurer and chair of the SOLINET Finance Committee from 2002-2004 and vice-chair of the Board from 2004-2005;
  • OCLC Members Council from 2005-2008 and as a member of the Community Advisory Group for the OCLC CEO search, 2011-2012;
  • member of the Richmond Public Library Board of Trustees from 2003 through 2012, including service as chair of its Finance Committee from 2003-2006 and 2008-2012, and as chair of the Board from 2006 to 2008;
  • member of the Richmond Public Library Foundation Board from 2017 to the present.

Ulmschneider is an alumnus of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science. In recognition of his leadership and many accomplishments, the school honored him with its UNC-SILS Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2011. Ulmschneider joined a notable list of exceptional library leaders who have graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.   

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If you would like to honor Dean Ulmschneider’s tenure at VCU Libraries, please consider a gift to the Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Space in his honor at


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