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Vice Provost and University Librarian Denise Stephens to Depart for University of Oklahoma

Vice Provost and University Librarian Denise Stephens has been named dean of libraries at the University of Oklahoma. She will assume her new position in May 2021.

For Stephens, the role signals a return home. She’s a native of Oklahoma City, and the University of Oklahoma is her alma mater. While a student there, she made the decision to pursue library science as a career. She holds BA and MLIS degrees from the institution.

A Library Leader

Stephens began serving at the Washington University Libraries in June 2017. Before coming to Washington University, she was university librarian at the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB).

During her six-year tenure at UCSB, Stephens planned and implemented an $80 million construction project that expanded the university’s library. She also instituted a scholarly communications program and established the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboratory, a unit dedicated to data-centric study and research. Additionally, she served as interim chief information officer.

Stephens has also held leadership positions at the University of Kansas, where she was strategic and organizational research librarian and vice provost and chief information officer. She was acting university librarian at Syracuse University.

During her time at Washington University, Stephens has managed the University Libraries’ nine locations and more than 150 staff members. She has overseen the University Libraries’ massive archival collections and the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections. She also guided the Olin Transformation Project to completion. The multimillion-dollar renovation project, which wrapped up in 2018, brought new study spaces, more areas for collaboration and instruction, and expanded exhibition spaces to John M. Olin Library, Washington University’s central library.

Building Momentum, Creating Connections

Thanks to her background and experience, Stephens is uniquely attuned to the challenges facing today’s academic library. When she joined the Washington University Libraries in 2017, she quickly identified key priorities that required attention.

Among those priorities was the issue of collection space management. At the time, the University Libraries faced a critical collection space shortage. Shelves were 75% full, and library locations across campus were functioning beyond operational capacity. Stephens worked with Washington University faculty to address these issues and other questions related to the organization and storage of the University Libraries’ current collections and future acquisitions.

A Short-Term Collection Space Management Project Plan was put in place after being vetted by the university’s Faculty Library Committee. Through the plan, the University Libraries freed up space that would accommodate continued growth and improve access to print materials across the Danforth and West campuses. 

Under the direction of Stephens, the University Libraries kept faculty and the university community updated on the project with regular status reports. The plan was successfully completed in 2019, and new long-term collection management strategies were established to ensure that sufficient space would be maintained for the preservation of research collections and the addition of new books in the coming years. Stephens has been working on a strategic objective to identify options for the future with a Long-Term Collection Space Management initiative.

Stephens also identified the development of a new strategic plan as being critical for the University Libraries’ continued evolution and success. Under her leadership, in 2018–2019, a strategic plan was established that incorporated feedback from library stakeholders across the university community, including students, faculty, and staff.

Throughout her tenure at the University Libraries, Stephens has stressed the importance of partnerships and the necessity for collaboration across campus and in the wider community. Strategizing new ways to share library resources, including spaces, tools and materials, and the expertise of staff members, has been an important priority.

To that end, Stephens oversaw the creation of Washington University’s academic support and collaboration program, which sponsors and coordinates outreach, academic development, and student enrichment services and programs in conjunction with the University Libraries’ portfolio of activities. The program is run by library staff members, who work to create and sustain new partnerships that promote successful student outcomes.

Stephens also played a key role in the successful effort to open a branch of the Federal Statistical Research Data Center at Washington University. Expected to open during the next three years, the center, which will be operated in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, Saint Louis University, and the University of Missouri–St. Louis, will be a major boon to area researchers. It will house confidential information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and other federal agencies. The University Libraries will manage the facility in collaboration with the Olin Business School.

Stephens’ abilities as a leader have made it possible for the Washington University Libraries to continue functioning at a high level during the COVID-19 crisis. Beginning in spring 2020, as Washington University entered an unprecedented period of virtual instruction, Stephens set about developing policies for library usage and guidelines for staff members working on and off campus. Throughout the pandemic, Stephens has worked to promote the health and safety of all library stakeholders, while ensuring that users have access to the resources necessary for teaching and research as physical library locations remain closed.

Stephens is active in a number of library organizations. In addition to serving as chair of the Digital Public Library of America board of directors, she is a member of the Center for Research Libraries Global Resource Network Board and the Western Storage Trust Executive Committee.

Associate University Librarian Leland Deeds has been appointed interim vice provost and university librarian.