University librarian named academic librarian of the year

Award recognizes John E. Ulmschneider’s work, which “epitomizes the innovative, visionary spirit of the academic and research library community,” said Mary Ellen K. Davis, executive director of the Association of College & Research Libraries.

Man at podium in front of presentation.
John Ulmschneider has been named the 2020 Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Academic/Research Librarian of the Year. Photo by Joe Mahoney for VCU Libraries.

John E. Ulmschneider, dean of VCU Libraries and university librarian at Virginia Commonwealth University, has been named the 2020 Association of College & Research Libraries’ Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.

One of the most distinguished honors in the academic library profession, the award recognizes an individual 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 award committee.

“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 after more than three decades in academic libraries, making this a particularly timely recognition. His retirement announcement has led many colleagues at VCU and beyond to reflect on his accomplishments.

VCU Libraries achieves national prominence

Some of Ulmschneider’s most significant achievements at VCU Libraries reflect the overall impact of his years of service. They include: membership in the Association of Research Libraries in 2018; recognition of VCU Libraries with the Association of College & Research Libraries’ 2018 Excellence in Academic Libraries Award; and receiving the highly competitive New Landmark Library award in 2016 for the expansion and renovation of Cabell Library.

“We set out to create an academic library that would express the institution VCU has become on the world stage, a distinctive and remarkable structure that captures VCU’s culture and, above all else, helps VCU students be successful,” he told VCU News in 2016.

Ulmschneider’s leadership at VCU Libraries has resulted in numerous other accomplishments that have transformed the scholarship, learning, creative endeavors and clinical care at VCU. Among them 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 increased 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. Ulmschneider’s advocacy continued when he charged the VCU Libraries Physical Accessibility Task Force in 2016 and the Gender Inclusive Work Group in 2018 to develop recommendations to foster a more inclusive atmosphere. He developed community programming over the years focused on race, social justice and religion. This programming includes Black History Month lectures celebrating African American experiences and achievements and Browns-Lyons lectures on some of the most important topics in the Jewish culture and faith. 

 “VCU has benefited from his leadership and career-long focus on innovation and inclusion,” said Mary Ellen K. Davis, executive director of the Association of College & Research Libraries. “His work epitomizes the innovative, visionary spirit of the academic and research library community.”

Creating a culture of philanthropy, Ulmschneider transformed the Friends of the VCU Libraries into a group that regularly contributes funds and time and helps expand the potential donor pool by “friend-raising.” The libraries increased giving by 30% on average in five years and doubled the number of donors.

Exercising foresight in partnering with VCU Health and the VCU Medical Center Auxiliary, he developed the VCU Medical Center Health and Wellness Library. 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

Beyond these many contributions to VCU and the 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 and the Virtual Library of Virginia.

Within VIVA, Ulmschneider has chaired the Advocacy Task Force for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia Library Advisory Committee to the Virginia General Assembly since 2000. 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 2018-20 budget cycle to support this initiative. His advocacy has benefited 39 state-assisted colleges and universities, 32 independent institutions and the Library of Virginia.

The Association of College & Research Libraries’ nominating committee noted, “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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