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Dean and VCU University Librarian named Academic Librarian of the Year

January 22, 2020
John Ulmschneider standing at a podium in front of a screen.

John E. Ulmschneider, dean of libraries and university librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the 2020 Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.

One of the most distinguished honors in the academic library profession, the award recognizes an outstanding member of the library profession who has made significant national or international contributions to academic/research librarianship and library development. The award will be presented to Ulmschneider in June at the American Library Association annual meeting in Chicago.

“John E. Ulmschneider’s extraordinary achievements as dean of libraries and university librarian at the Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries led the committee to name him as 2020 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year,” said Jeannette E. Pierce, chair of the ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year Award Committee and associate university librarian for research, access, and instructional services at the University of Missouri Libraries. 

“I don’t have words adequate to express my gratitude to all of my extraordinary colleagues over the years who have made this recognition possible,” Ulmschneider said. “To be included among librarianship’s most accomplished leaders with this award, including my mentor, the late Susan Nutter, is deeply moving. I have dedicated my career to building institutional cultures that allow every person to flourish and all of us to rise to our best selves, and to develop and resource libraries that foster the success of our students and faculty and enrich our diverse communities. I am gratified that ACRL and my colleagues have recognized the importance of this work through this award.”

According to the nomination package prepared by the VCU associate university librarians, in his 20 years at VCU, John Ulmschneider has developed and transformed the VCU Libraries and its programs into an exemplary and dynamic organization. He will retire in June 2020 after more than three decades in academic libraries, which makes this a particularly timely recognition. His retirement announcement has led many colleagues at VCU and beyond to reflect on his numerous accomplishments. 

VCU Libraries achieves national prominence

Some of his most significant achievements at VCU Libraries reflect the overall impact of his many years of service at the university, including: leading the libraries to successfully achieve membership in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in 2018; the recognition of VCU Libraries with the ACRL 2018 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award; and receiving the highly competitive Library Landmark award for the renewed Cabell Library following construction in 2016. 

Ulmschneider’s vibrant leadership at VCU Libraries has resulted in numerous other accomplishments that have transformed the scholarship, learning, creative endeavors and clinical care at VCU. Among his accomplishments are:

  • Developing and building new space for James Branch Cabell Library and investing in modernizing facilities at Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences.
  • Facilitating, advocating and managing growth to meet the needs of VCU. During his tenure, he succeeded in increasing the libraries budget to a level that keeps pace with the academic community's needs. And, the collection grew more than 250% to more than 3 million volumes. He nearly doubled the number of library employees, driving up VCU Libraries’ engagement with the university, the greater Richmond community and the profession.
  • Advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion through many internal and external initiatives.
    • Through his investment of time and stewardship, VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives have grown notable collections including book art, comic arts, medical artifacts, underrepresented communities (including LGBTQ+ and African-American communities in Virginia and the Southeast), and more.
    • Cabell Library was the first academic building on the Monroe Park campus to offer gender neutral restrooms in the fall of 2010. His advocacy continued when he charged the VCU Libraries Physical Accessibility Task Force (PHAST) in 2016 and the Gender Inclusive Work Group in 2018 to develop recommendations to foster a more inclusive atmosphere at VCU Libraries. 
    • He developed community programming over the years focused on race, social justice and religion. This programming includes 18 years of Black History Month lectures celebrating African-American experiences and achievements and 35 years of Browns-Lyons lectures on important topics in the Jewish culture and faith.  
  • Creating a culture of philanthropy, he transformed the Friends of the VCU Libraries to a group that regularly contributes funds and time to the libraries and helps expand our potential donor pool by “friend-raising.” The Libraries increased giving by 30% on average in five years and doubled the number of donors.
  • Acting as an early adopter of technologies, Ulmschneider routinely commits VCU Libraries assets to lead and innovate with state-of-the-art library software, initiatives and services that bring efficiencies and professionalism to practices. 
  • Commiting staff expertise and resources to support for open access and affordable course content, it is estimated that the VCU Libraries saved students $1,374,181 during 2018-2019. 
  • Exercising foresight in partnering with VCU Health and the VCU Medical Center Auxiliary, he developed the VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library located on the first floor of a vibrant teaching hospital. Since 2002, the Health and Wellness Library has provided high quality consumer health information to the community. It is the only consumer health library in Virginia and one of the few in the nation.

Impact at the state level saves taxpayers and students money

Beyond these many contributions to the VCU and Richmond community, Ulmschneider has had a significant, lasting impact in regional library circles. Notable contributions have been through his work with the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries (ASERL) and the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA). 

Within VIVA, Ulmschneider has chaired the Advocacy Task Force for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) Library Advisory Committee (LAC) to the Virginia General Assembly since 2000. Funding for VIVA has grown from under $8 million in the 2002-2004 budget period to $18 million in the 2018-2020 budget period. His advocacy for the General Assembly to invest in open educational resources and affordable course content led to a permanent increase of $600,000 in the VIVA budget for the 2018-2020 budget cycle to support this initiative. His successful advocacy has benefitted the 39 state-assisted colleges and universities (six doctoral universities, nine 4-year institutions, and 24 community and 2-year branch colleges), the 32 independent (private, nonprofit) institutions, and the Library of Virginia. Currently, Ulmschneider is a leading voice within the Virginia Research Libraries (VRL) efforts to re-examine and develop a sustainable model to support continuing resources. 

In conclusion, the nominating committee noted that “John Ulmschneider has been tremendously successful in developing a library system that is a model for others. He has created and fostered an environment that attracts outstanding library faculty and staff and supports the investment of their time and talents to advance the Libraries, the University, and the profession. He has created a culture of inclusion and innovation that make him worthy of receiving the ACRL Academic/Research Librarian of the Year Award.” 

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