Trevor A. Dawes is an accomplished educator, consultant, writer, academic librarian and leadership expert. He holds the titles of May Morris University Librarian and Vice Provost for Libraries and Museums at the University of Delaware, and has served on both the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission (JUSFC) and U.S.-Japan Conference on Cultural and Educational Interchange (CULCON) since 2021.
Dawes was born in Jamaica and first became fascinated with Japan while studying at Columbia University in New York City. A work-study job in Columbia’s library led Dawes to discover the world of library science; after graduating, he earned an Ed.M. in Educational Leadership and MA in Educational Administration from Columbia’s Teachers College, and a Master of Library Science from Rutgers University. He was named both a UCLA Senior Fellow and Frye Fellow for his innovative work in the field.
Dawes has held library-related positions at Columbia University, Princeton University, Washington University in St. Louis, Drexel University, and the American Library Association.
In addition to his responsibilities for the University of Delaware’s libraries and museums, Dawes runs the institution’s academic press, where he oversees the publication of books on topics ranging from local Delaware culture to African-American history. As a writer and editor himself, Dawes has published texts related to library leadership, management systems and electronic resources. One of his most recent writing projects focused on how librarians can help guide their communities in times of crisis.
Nichi Bei Connect recently spoke with Dawes about the role libraries play in communities, the power of mentorship, and how a bold approach can create inspiring opportunities in the world of U.S.-Japan relations.
How did you first become interested in Japan as a country and culture?
I was born in Jamaica and moved to New York City with my family when I was thirteen. Growing up, I heard about Japan on the news, but I wasn’t really exposed to the people or culture. I went to Columbia University in New York, and that’s where I met my first Japanese friends, some of whom I’m still close with today.
I developed an interest in learning about Japan in order to better understand those friends, and Japanese art and food were the first aspects of the culture that really resonated with me—both are easy to connect with, and can be great starting points for people who want to learn more about Japan.
How did you choose library science as a career path?
I was a work-study student in the library as an undergraduate at Columbia. There were several librarians who kept telling me I should be a librarian. Honestly, I didn’t see it at the time, but I guess it was fated to be. [Laughs.] A full-time library position opened up after I graduated, and I applied and got it. After that, I went to library school and worked at a number of different institutions. I haven’t looked back. I absolutely love what I do.
What do you love about it?
I get a deep sense of satisfaction every time I hear that a library has helped advance someone’s scholarship, knowledge, and success—but my love for this field goes beyond that. Just before this interview, I met with a faculty member who’s retiring and donating his papers to the library here at the University of Delaware. It’s really exciting to know that this acquisition will have incredible research value, and will help future generations of scholars.
What are your responsibilities as Vice Provost?
The provost is the chief academic officer at an academic institution, so as Vice Provost for libraries, museums, and the press at the University of Delaware, I am the chief academic officer for those three units. My role is to be an advocate. I make sure that our libraries, museums, and press have the appropriate resources to engage with faculty, students, scholars, and community members in ways that they find valuable.
How would you describe the overall role of an academic librarian?
In academic libraries, our primary clientele is students, faculty, and staff of the university that we serve. We’re open to the public as well, but they are our secondary clientele.
Our main purpose is to help students discover information, and then be able to critically assess, use, and integrate that knowledge into their work so that they can be successful. In the process, we try to help them develop lifelong research and analytical skills. And we help faculty and other scholars advance their research and scholarship however we can.
Beyond that, academic libraries are community spaces, just like public libraries are. We bring people together. One public library I used to regularly visit called itself “the community’s living room,” and that’s a great way of describing the role both academic and public libraries play. You can use a library to check out books, but it’s also a place to find movies or music, learn about technology, develop skills, and get help finding a job. Not that long ago, I remember listening to the news about a heat wave in Northwestern Canada, and how libraries there were open as cooling centers. Libraries can serve so many purposes.
How have libraries’ roles as “community living rooms” evolved with digital technology?
The role libraries play has changed and grown. The living room has become a virtual space, not just a physical one. At the University of Delaware, we have chat servers and we text with our users, for example. Digital technology has empowered us to communicate with our clientele in so many new ways.
Libraries in general are also becoming spaces of technology, creation, and discovery. We’ve seen libraries begin to host maker spaces with 3-D printing and other sorts of digitally-based activities and technologies. The days of libraries being rigid places where librarians with pencils behind their ears tell everybody to shush are long gone. Librarians love to see bustling libraries where community members learn, discover, and create their own knowledge.
Another big change that libraries have been dealing with is that so much more data is available online—and I’m intentionally using the word data, as opposed to information. Data is something you have to analyze to determine whether it’s going to be useful for your purposes.
Can you elaborate?
Let’s say I want to learn how to install a light bulb. I can Google the general topic and get a million hits—but there are still a lot of questions to ask before I get the information I actually need. What kind of light bulb or fixture am I using? Is it indoor or outdoor? Is it a floodlight, or is it being used in a lab? What’s the wattage and voltage? If you’re not able to focus in on exactly what you’re looking for, you can easily end up going in the wrong direction. One of a librarian’s biggest jobs is helping people develop the critical thinking and analytical skills needed to ask the right questions.
How do people develop those skills?
Talk to your librarian! We are here to help you determine whether the information you’re finding is actually what you need. Beyond that, always think about the author—did your Google search bring you to a paper written by a fifth-grader, or are you reading an article from a seasoned technician with direct knowledge about electricity and lighting installations? Also, pay attention to whether the text you’re reading is based on solid research, and if there are footnotes and citations from dependable sources. Even the extensions of a website’s URL—.edu, .com, .biz, and so many others—can give you clues about a text’s nature and validity. These are just a few of the strategies that a librarian can help you learn.
What sorts of people should follow in your footsteps and pursue a career in library science?
There isn’t a single type. Library science includes many different specialties and kinds of work. Some people focus on administration, like I do, and others are frontline workers who interact with clients. We have programmers, data experts, and people who work behind the scenes in acquisition and cataloging units. The reference and instructional staff work directly with faculty and students. And in a public library, librarians work with children, conduct workshops, or teach technology. If you’re an outgoing person who likes working with the public, there’s a place for you. If you’re more of a private person who likes to work on your own or in a small team, there’s a place for you, too.
What have you been working on recently as a writer and editor?
I recently worked with a colleague in Philadelphia to edit a revised book about library access services. It includes topics like circulation, course reserve, interlibrary loans and facilities. One of the chapters I wrote focuses on leading a library through times of crisis. There’s the pandemic, of course, but we have also seen floods, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters impact libraries and their communities. Unfortunately, it’s a very relevant topic.
How did you first become involved in the Japan-United States Friendship Commission?
My friend and librarian colleague Deanna Marcum used to be a Commissioner. When her term was expiring, she recommended me to fill her seat. I’m not an expert in Japanese studies or history—and I was a little hesitant at first, because of that—but Deanna still encouraged me to get involved. I’m glad she did. I’m proud to bring diversity, balance, and a different set of experiences to the Commission’s conversations.
What advice could you offer to readers who want to get involved in Japan-related work, but may not yet be experts themselves?
Don’t be shy. Jump in and learn. Since I work in an educational setting, learning and growing are a big part of what I do every day. If you have a budding interest in Japan, there’s always an opportunity to engage and grow.
In general, today in our society, there’s so much other-ism based on race, ethnicity, and culture. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to take advantage of opportunities to learn about other cultures, people, and societies.
How diverse is the world of library science?
The field is roughly 80% white and female. We have a long way to go in terms of diversifying the profession. There have been efforts over the last thirty years, but we haven’t made much of a dent in those statistics in terms of recruiting and retaining people of color.
As a person of color, have you felt welcomed in the field?
I’ve always felt very supported by university librarians and the institutions at which I’ve worked, and that support has helped me feel welcomed. That doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced racism—I certainly have—but I feel that I’ve been very fortunate. Others have had much worse experiences in that regard than I have.
What advice could you offer to people of color—or anyone else—who may find themselves a minority in their professional fields?
I would offer the same advice I mentioned earlier on the subject of getting involved with Japan. There’s far too much other-ism in our society right now, and the best way to offset it is to invest in learning about whatever other you’re dealing with. You can build bridges by asking questions and trying to understand a culture that’s different from your own.
Unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, some people will never be interested in sharing, learning, or teaching, so this approach will not always work. But for the most part, it’s a good and effective strategy.
What role have mentors played in your career?
As I mentioned earlier, several mentors encouraged me to become a librarian when I was a student at Columbia. Their support had a very big impact on my career, and I still consider some of them to be mentors and dear friends. Beyond that, a number of important mentors have helped me with different aspects of my career. Some gave me important advice about professional opportunities, and others helped me get through new challenges I was experiencing at work. Some were great for discussing ideas that I needed to work through. My first published article was co-authored with a mentor of mine.
What advice could you offer to readers who want to connect with the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan space?
Identify exactly what you want and need from a mentor relationship, and remember that you can have different mentors for different aspects of your career. Then, try to find the appropriate person who can help.
Years ago, I was presenting at a conference and at the end of my talk, an audience member came up to me and said, “Hey, Trevor, would you be my mentor?” I said, “Really? Let’s talk!” [Laughs.] That person and I are still friends today. A direct, confident approach can help you connect with mentors in any aspect of the U.S.-Japan relationship that interests you.
If you prefer a less bold approach, you can also try writing introductory emails to people you admire and explain why you’re drawn to their work. Once you’ve gotten a mentor’s attention, you may end up having just a single conversation, or the connection could grow into a longer-term mentoring relationship. It’s all helpful.
What advice can you offer experienced professionals who want to become mentors?
Make yourself available and let people know that you want to help. If you’re affiliated with a professional organization that has a mentoring program, volunteer to be a part of it. If someone’s bold enough to send you an email or approach you directly, be welcoming and have a conversation. And even if you are not able to be a long-term mentor, at least take the time to briefly connect and offer advice, or offer a connection to someone else who can help.
I’m an active mentor myself, and I consider it to be a very important part of my work. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help, guidance and assistance of my mentors. That’s why I feel it’s so important to give back and offer the next generation the same sort of support that was given to me.