Denise Stephens, New Vice Provost and University Librarian, Brings Forward-Looking Vision to Washington University

Denise Stephens; photo by Mary Butkus

Ask Denise Stephens what keeps her inspired on the job, and she’s quick with an answer: “I like a challenge.”

To Washington University’s new vice provost and university librarian, a challenge represents an opportunity—a chance to move beyond the present into a future of greater possibility.

“I feel that I grow and become wiser the more I spend my time working on the complex issues that I encounter on the job,” Stephens says. “Each day, I look forward to coming in and learning where there are opportunities to improve and be strategic. The only way you can really lose is never to engage a challenge.”

Stephens began serving at Washington University on June 15, after a six-year tenure as university librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). A native of Oklahoma City, Okla., she’s happy to be back in the Midwest.

“Coming here has been a great opportunity,” Stephens says. “Washington University is a huge player in higher education, with real reach and impact in the areas of research and instruction. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

The path to leadership

Although she worked in the library as an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, first as a student assistant and then as a technician, Stephens didn’t set out to enter the field of library science. She planned to become an attorney. After earning a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Oklahoma in 1987, she came close to entering law school but had a change of heart.

On advice from a friend, she postponed law school and continued working in the library at the University of Oklahoma. Eventually, one of her supervisors suggested that, given her facility for the work, she earn the credentials necessary to pursue library science as a serious profession. In 1993, she earned a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Oklahoma.

“Once I got into the graduate program and really studied, I realized that information science—how people use information and how it impacts scholarship and higher education—was very important to me,” she says.

Stephens left Oklahoma City in 1993 to take her first professional position as documents information services coordinator in the university library at the University of Virginia. UVA, Stephens says, was a wonderful place to start her career. While there, she discovered that she had an interest in leadership and was able to develop her strengths in that area and take advantage of opportunities that moved her career forward.

Stephens spent seven years at UVA before going on to hold leadership positions at the University of Kansas, where she served as strategic and organizational research librarian and as vice provost and chief information officer. She also served as acting university librarian at Syracuse University.

In 2011, she was appointed university librarian at UCSB. During her tenure there, she planned and implemented an $80 million construction project that expanded the university’s library. She instituted a scholarly communications program and started the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboratory, a unit dedicated to data-centric study and research. While at UCSB, Stephens also acted as interim chief information officer.

Now, as she settles in at Washington University, Stephens hopes to contribute a revitalized big picture for Washington University Libraries—a vision of how the organization can evolve while advancing the university’s mission. Starting her new job during the summer allowed her to go on what she calls a “listening tour” around campus. “One of the things I learned is that the libraries have a strong fan base here,” she says. “Many people across campus have made it clear that we’re important to them and to the work they do.”

What’s ahead for Washington University Libraries

A top priority for Stephens is the issue of collections space. She is working with faculty to answer the questions of how best to organize and store Washington University Libraries’ current collections, as well as future acquisitions. Decisions about what resources to acquire, which formats to pursue—print or electronic—and where to house materials directly affect the future of Washington University Libraries and the research that takes place at the university. By the end of the current academic year, Stephens hopes to have clear guidelines for how these determinations are made.

A new strategic plan for Washington University Libraries is also a priority. “Now is the time to think about what’s coming next and to make the right strategic commitments to the future so that we can have the greatest impact here at the university,” Stephens says. “Now is also the time to identify areas where we can grow, develop, and innovate.”

In looking to the future, Stephens is inspired by library staff. “This is a creative, entrepreneurial group of people. They’re talented and knowledgeable, and they have demonstrated a willingness to take risks to meet the needs of users. I’m really inspired by the work that’s happening here.”

Library as laboratory

Because the ways in which teachers, researchers, and students access and use information are evolving quickly, Stephens feels that there’s an increased necessity for collaboration with those groups. “As we work to be competent partners in a very challenging information world, we’re in a continual state of learning and development, evaluation and improvement,” she says. “The research library itself is a laboratory for how all these processes come together, and that’s what makes it exciting. It’s a very different place than it was 20 years ago.”

Today, technology empowers students like never before, giving them nearly unlimited access to information. Because technology is so deeply integrated into their daily lives—into the ways they communicate, socialize, and study—Stephens believes they create some of the most pressing challenges for today’s research library.

“Everybody is working to better understand this current generation of young scholars. We’re trying to understand how they engage with information, and how we can reach them and design the services they need.”

While she’s inspired by the way technology has empowered researchers and scholars, Stephens is convinced that the printed book is here to stay.

“We’re living in a world—and I think we will be in this place for some time—where the best technology depends on its ability to deliver information in a way that has meaning for the user. For many of us, the book is still that technology. It’s far from being an artifact.

“For others, though, a book is not the most suitable form of technology, and that’s part of what makes this is a unique and challenging time for the research library. But this is also a time where we can make a lot of progress in understanding the needs of our scholarly community. We’re going to learn because of this and have greater confidence about what it takes to support our users.”

As a newcomer to St. Louis, Stephens has enjoyed exploring the region. She and her husband, Bill Edwards, a videographer with Washington University’s Office of Public Affairs, keep a guidebook to St. Louis handy so that they can sightsee when the mood strikes them. They’ve settled in University City and feel very much at home.

“I’m excited about what lies ahead,” Stephens says. “The energy on campus and among the library staff is incredible. I’m happy to be here and to have the chance to move Washington University Libraries forward.”

 —Julie Hale



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