Stewart Named University Librarian
On May 16, Claire Stewart stepped into her role as the new Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, the 16th person and third woman to take on such duties in the University Library’s 150-plus years of existence.
Stewart, 50, returns to her family’s Illinois roots as she takes the helm of one of the largest public academic libraries in the U.S., considered one of the nation’s most esteemed repositories of knowledge.
“I feel incredibly honored, and I’m really, really humbled to have this opportunity,” she said.
Stewart most recently served as dean of libraries and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2019–2023). Prior to that, she was Associate University Librarian for Research & Learning at the University of Minnesota Libraries (2015–19) and worked in various positions, including head of the Center for Scholarly Communication and Digital Curation, at Northwestern University Library (1993–2015). She earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, in 1993 and a master’s degree in library and information science from Dominican University in River Forest in 1995.
Stewart was one of four finalists for the deanship, from which John Wilkin stepped away in 2022 after nearly a decade. The nationwide search concluded with the announcement in February of Stewart’s selection.
Stewart began working in libraries right before starting her graduate studies, when she took a temp job at Northwestern University, one of the first in the nation to launch electronic reserves. “I think there was a luck of timing about this because that was before the Web had really taken hold,” Stewart recalled. As she enjoyed technology and was willing to step forward and try new things, the job opened up new pathways in digitization; once the Web launched within her first year, it also brought the opportunity to work with personnel from many sectors. “The interest in technology . . . [and] copyright law, those two things really gave me a chance to interact with people and, obviously, a lot in archives and special collections,” Stewart said.
“So I had an unusual amount of contact across the library, and then outside of the library, at a really early stage in my career, which I think has set me up to have a pretty good well-rounded perspective on everything that impacts our lives and libraries,” she said.
Those early days at Northwestern imprinted a certain mindset, and Stewart has worked to expand the ties between technology and scholarly research. “It was clear . . . every part of our work was going to eventually be impacted by this,” she said. These days, in addition to job-related duties, Stewart chairs the Board of Governors for HathiTrust, which preserves more than 17 million digitized items, the largest such collection managed by academic and research libraries; serves on the steering committees for the Big Ten Academic Alliance’s BIG Collection and Geospatial Data projects; and belongs to the American Council of Learned Societies’ Commission on Fostering and Sustaining Diverse Digital Scholarship.
The mindset comprises a deep understanding of the interfaces linking libraries, staff, and constituents. “One of the things I love the most about this profession and the work we do is how pervasive it is,” Stewart said. “Everything has an information component.” That opportunity—as well as obligation—to connect to every academic discipline is “enormously challenging,” she said, as well as “really interesting and exciting.”
Stewart points to another responsibility she takes seriously—attending to the well-being of everyone involved. “That first circle for me,” she said, “is making sure that the library is a healthy, diverse, supportive environment.” She believes people do their best work if they believe and see that their work has value, “if they have some ability to influence the work they do.” Conversely, she wants to provide a physical, social, technical, and information environment that allows patrons to best achieve their learning goals and create new knowledge. All of these components present an opportunity, as Stewart puts it, “to do good.”
Challenges at Illinois
While Stewart was not looking for a professional change when the Illinois job opened up, its lure was compelling.
“I have admired your library my entire career,” Stewart wrote to her future Illinois colleagues before permanently arriving on campus. Becoming the new University Librarian “is in so many ways a dream come true.”
Calling Illinois “one of the most renowned, well-respected, leading library organizations in the country,” Stewart says that reputation goes well beyond its collection size (currently at more than 14 million volumes). She lauds the campus’s reputation for leadership, excellence, research orientation of its faculty, and the important role Illinois plays in the Big Ten. With that in mind, “I wanted to see if . . . I was the person who could help make sure that Illinois was able to continue to lead and contribute at that level,” she said.
The Illinois deanship marks the first time that Stewart has worked at an institution that hosts a library and information science school, as well as some departmental libraries—such as International and Area Studies—with which she did not have prior experience. That excites her, in addition to the massive Library Building Project, which mirrors similar major renovation work she undertook at both Nebraska and Minnesota.
While the Library’s space transformations will take much of Stewart’s immediate focus, she also looks to sustain Illinois’ attention to open educational resources, bolster student success, and ensure that the Library remains at the forefront of the profession.
A component that particularly pleases Stewart is getting to know Library supporters. “’I’m actually astonished at the number of people who have reached out to me since my announcement,” she said. “There’s a very strong connection to this Library that . . . is pretty striking. So I’m looking forward to getting to know them . . . and understanding why they’re passionate about the libraries.”
“I’m really looking forward to being a part of this community because it’s so vibrant in every way—the Library community, the Champaign-Urbana community,” Stewart said. “It just seems like it has a really fantastic vibe. And I can’t wait to be a part of it.”
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