University of Wisconsin–Madison

2018 Distinguished Alumna: Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson

The iSchool is excited to announce Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson (PhD’98) as our 2018 Distinguished Alumna. Dr. Lawson will visit Madison in May as our graduation speaker. Currently the Director of the Houston Public Library, she shared her career history and highlights with the iSchool early this year.

What is your background? Have you always wanted to work in libraries?

I began my career in libraries as a para-professional at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. I was not seeking a career in libraries but had been a huge fan and a regular user of them. I joined Pratt right after college “temporarily” to save money for my graduate studies in another field. Like most people who “stumble” into our profession – I fell head over heels in love with it. Early on, I found that I loved providing the array of services the library had to offer and I especially enjoyed getting kids excited about the stories and adventures found in the pages of books. At Pratt, innovation and creativity was encouraged and celebrated and I flourished in that environment. My graduate degree turned out to be a MLS from the University of Maryland.

How did your time at the iSchool influence your career?

I was recruited to the PhD program at UW-Madison by the late Deb Johnson.  Our paths crossed often through our respective work in adult and family literacy. Additionally, I was drawn to the work and publications regarding planning and role setting for public libraries that Doug Zweizig and others at UW-Madison championed.  My time at UW broadened my knowledge of the profession and expanded my thinking through interaction with the talented faculty and staff and the students in my cohort. Many of the concepts that I was exposed to at UW still influence my leadership philosophy and problem-solving strategies. In UW’s rich and supportive environment, I had the opportunity to develop and teach classes in urban librarianship and multicultural library services. I discovered I loved teaching and I am still teaching graduate classes in leadership today.

How did you guide Houston Public Library in response to a disaster like Hurricane Harvey?

With compassion, preparation, communication, and teamwork. While every disaster has its own set of unique circumstances, nothing prepares you for dealing with a disaster like experience. Hurricane Harvey was “not my first rodeo,” I was also here for Hurricane Ike. It was incredibly important to be in frequent communication with City leadership to receive and deliver critical information and updates and to identify ways the library could provide support with rescue and recovery efforts. It was equally important to have pre-storm systems in place to communicate with my staff, provide support if needed, share vital information, and plan a post storm course of action. My staff is such an inspiration to me because of their deep dedication to service and their unwavering willingness to serve this city. They represent the best of Houston. At the height of the storm, about 160-170 of our 500 staff members had to evacuate their homes.  Yet they stepped up and pulled together to help each other as well as their fellow Houstonians. We were able to restore services in 19 neighborhoods rather quickly. We know that during catastrophic times libraries are even more essential. We wanted to open our doors to provide a sense of normalcy in communities and to help restore the joy in the eyes of children and adults who had seen so much destruction, and experienced so much fear and uncertainty. We supported the city’s rescue efforts by providing child care for the children of first responders and other city employees while schools were closed. We provided office space for the staffs of two city departments while repairs were being made to their offices. HPL mobile hot spots and laptop computers were used to help citizens apply for FEMA and their contact insurance companies and relatives while in shelters in the aftermath of the storm.

What have been your career highlights so far?

Throughout my career, I have been primarily focused on advocating and providing leadership for public libraries regarding the vital roles they play and essential services they provide in their communities. I have been afforded many opportunities to move forward this work.

  • Serving as Director of the Houston Public Library
  • Establishing a third HPL archive to preserve and celebrate the history and contributions of African Americans in Houston
  • Being selected as UW Alumna of the year
  • Being honored by the Woman’s Club of Houston
  • Receiving a mayoral proclamation and having a day named for me in honor of my service to Houston
  • Serving on the advisory committee for ALA President Jim Neal
  • Serving on the executive boards of ULC, PLA and serving as chair of BARC
  • Serving on the advisory boards of UNT and UW information schools
  • Serving on the advisory board of the Texas State Library Systems Act Advisory Board

What advice do you have for aspiring librarians? What are the most important skills for them the cultivate?

  • Be authentic
  • Embrace, practice and advocate for diversity and inclusion
  • Understand the differences between management and leadership
  • Be agile – change is constant; be prepared to deal with it
  • Be vigilant – identify how change in other industries and within our own can impact your day to day
  • Be cognizant of current industry trends and issues
  • Be engaged locally and/or nationally – join a committee or run for office in an area where you want to learn more or make a difference
  • Be aware of the goals of the leadership of your city, campus or organization and how they impact your library and how your library can be helpful in goal attainment
  • Political savvy
  • Never stop improving your organization, your staff, and yourself

Thank you for sharing your life and career, Dr. Lawson!