Connie Vinita Dowell returns to her alma mater as Vanderbilt's first dean of libraries
by Ann Marie Deer Owens
photo by John Russell
Connie Vinita Dowell knew by the time she had earned a master’s in library science from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College in 1979 that she thrived in an academic library environment. What she could not imagine was that three decades later, the university community would welcome her back as Vanderbilt’s first dean of libraries.
Dowell’s impressive career path did not begin in a library; instead, she double-majored in communications and social work at Middle Tennessee State University and wrote for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Along the way her combined interests in research, writing and communications led to public relations work for libraries.
While Dowell was a Peabody graduate student, she worked in the Central and Science libraries. She thoroughly enjoyed providing reference assistance and teaching library instruction classes. She remembers doing “pioneer” online searches with her colleagues at the Science Library. Dowell earned her master’s degree in 1979, the same year that Peabody merged with Vanderbilt.
Following graduate school, Dowell worked at Morgan State University, a historically black institution, where she developed a library instruction program. In 1980 she went to St. Mary’s College of Maryland to be the library’s assistant director and head of public services. There she served as the college’s first faculty senate executive member elected from the library.
Dowell was named head of general reference services for the University of North Texas in 1984 and took a similar position at the University of California at Santa Barbara three years later. Dowell’s strong belief in connecting academic libraries to their communities is reflected in many of the public relations and fundraising initiatives that she undertook at Santa Barbara and later at Connecticut College, where she also served as chief information officer and oversaw the merger of libraries and computing.
“A key role for any academic library is to help its school develop a strong sense of community with those on campus as well those outside the institution,” Dowell said. “As generalists, librarians are uniquely suited to provide leadership in connecting the disciplines and bringing together people with shared interests.”
Richard McCarty, Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said that Dowell’s superb talent for bringing together different groups across campus and the community to learn makes her the ideal choice for Vanderbilt’s first dean of libraries.
“Connie’s high-energy, innovative thinking and her commitment to the broader Nashville community will be invaluable as we continue the work of transforming our libraries into vibrant hubs of scholarly activity,” he said.
While Dowell was at San Diego State University, the school co-sponsored a symposium with the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians called “Spirit of the Land.” More than 1,700 people attended the two-day event, which featured panels of authors, poets, scientists, educators, environmental advocates and artists discussing the environment from varying perspectives. That event was among many that raised the library’s visibility in the San Diego community and helped it win a John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award from the American Library Association. Libraries at UC-Santa Barbara and the University of North Texas also received this award during Dowell’s tenure.
“Connie was a bridge between our university and the community that we work so hard to serve and enrich,” said Stephen L. Weber, president of San Diego State. “She built local archives, such as one on local African American leaders; encouraged our students to be actively involved in and supportive of the library; and re-energized our ‘Friends of the Library.’”
Along with major additions to the archives, Dowell was responsible for adding numerous rare items, including a 1627 copy of famed astronomer Johannes Kepler’s Rudolphine Tables, and one of the strongest collections of early computers and calculating machines in the West.
Dowell is an avid reader and describes herself as a low-key book collector with membership in New York’s Grolier Club and the Zamarano Club of Southern California. The groups meet periodically to hear speakers talk on book-related topics.
“It’s work outside of work for me, but a wonderful opportunity to meet people who share my passion for authors and book collecting,” she said. Her personal collection includes works by author Eudora Welty, poet Galway Kinnell and artist Claire Van Vilet, founder of Janus Press. She also has a strong interest in theater and film, especially on college campuses, and history.
Seth Mallios, chair and professor of anthropology at San Diego State, worked with Dowell on a major project to restore two WPA-era murals that had been lost and recovered.
“As soon as we found the lost murals, it was Connie who immediately began facilitating how to get them conserved and restored,” he said. “Her vision for higher learning and community engagement is stunning.”
Dowell and her husband, Steve Miller, share an interest in preserving older homes. They owned a home on the National Historic Register when she was at Connecticut College. In San Diego, Dowell and Miller, who is an oceanographer, purchased a Spanish-inspired house built in 1928 in the Kensington neighborhood. Renovating it has been a labor of love for the past decade.
One of Dowell’s major reasons for coming to Vanderbilt is to work with faculty, students, staff, alumni and others on a comprehensive study of the libraries with a view toward major library-enhancement efforts. She has always placed a high priority on building relationships with library stakeholders and caring about staff needs. At San Diego State she worked to improve hiring and retention policies and was recognized with the SirsiDynix-ALA-APA Award for Outstanding Achievement in Promoting Salaries and Status for Library Workers.
“I look forward to talking with a wide variety of individuals and groups in various venues about how we can achieve what the chancellor has talked about – a destination library for Vanderbilt,” Dowell said. “Libraries are the intellectual heart of the university. They should be places to hear poets, see exhibits, meet others with shared interests as well as do research. They should be warm, welcoming refuges from a tumultuous day, and at the same time, exciting places where you’ll find the latest technology.”