While libraries underwent significant transformation, Kathy Downes adapted without changing the focus of her job.
“They do a lot of listening to our students,” said Dr. Shirley Lefever, executive vice president and provost at Wichita State University. “She reads a lot, and so she is always looking ahead for ‘What’s the next big thing,’ and what is the role of the university?’”
Downes, dean of University Libraries since 2017, came to Wichita State in 1979 as a biomedical librarian. She also served as assistant dean, associate dean and senior associate dean. She will retire in September.
She played a central role as Ablah Library expanded and the digital services of University Libraries grew in number and importance. Throughout her tenure, no matter the medium, whether using books, microfilm or the internet, she worked to connect people to information.
“My job is to make sure the boulders in the road are not there, or to take those obstacles away,” Downes said. “I want to make sure faculty, staff, students are empowered to move forward. Always asking, ‘What can we bring to campus to contribute to the success of students and faculty?’”
Lefever and Downes share a timeline as deans.
“What I always value about Kathy is that she listens intently,” Lefever said. “You always know that when she has something to say, she’s thought it through from a lot of angles. She comes at it from a very informed perspective."
Downes came to Wichita State having graduated from Mississippi University for Women with a degree in biology, physical sciences and library science. She earned her graduate degree in library information sciences from the University of Kentucky.
After 43 years at Wichita State, she thinks of her colleagues, her favorite spaces in Ablah Library, such as Special Collections, and the rhythm of life on campus.
“I will miss the energy level that students bring,” she said. “When you walk on a campus the first week of fall semester, you can feel the excitement. You can see the excitement.”
Downes found the job of helping people navigate the many offerings of a library rewarding in many ways. She enjoyed helping students find information and explore sources of information that opened new paths. Early in her career, she guided students through card catalogs, bookshelves and periodicals. She advocated for developing a variety of study spaces and technology to help students and faculty.
In recent decades, digital information and technical support grew in importance. Downes estimates 96% of new materials received by the University Libraries now come in digital format.
“Perhaps you’re working on a project in history and that overlaps with art,” she said. “I really liked the engagement with people, the process that saw a student or faculty member with a project come to us and we helped them identify and get the materials they needed regardless of format.”
The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the library staff to help students and faculty who moved to remote classes during the spring 2020 semester. Home visits by the University Libraries’ technical staff to their library colleagues helped with initial technical issues.
The library loaned laptops. It worked with colleges to get resources to students and helped teachers locate videos and other digital instructional materials.
“They dug right in,” Lefever said. “They were boots on the ground from day one, thinking about ‘OK, how can we provide resources for, not only students, but also faculty.’”
Ablah Library adapted over the years to reflect changing times. For instance, the Milton A. and Dawn P. Messinger Digital Scholars Commons opened in April and the E.K. and Kathlien Edmiston 24-Hour Study Room was renovated in 2020. Both of these initiatives were driven by a desire to meet the evolving needs of the student body.
“She’s leaving some big shoes to fill,” Lefever said. “She has been a constant at WSU for a long time and the campus community as a whole, admires and respects her deeply.”