Mae Lipscomb Rodney (Ph.D. ’86): Reflecting on a long and eventful academic library career

November 15, 2015

Dr. Mae Lipscomb Rodney

During Mae Lipscomb Rodney’s 32-years as Library Director at Winston-Salem State University (WSSU), the only constant seems to have been change. Rodney successfully led the C. G. O’Kelly Library through a number of physical transformations, personnel expansions, and technological implementations, helping it grow from a “small box” where staff members were asking for a functional typewriter, to a modern facility with high-tech resources and versatile collaborative spaces.

“From the time I entered the library in 1983 until I left there in June, there was always something new coming down the pike,” Rodney said. “There was always some addition or modification that was needed, some new technology that had to be incorporated. There was so much to do, but I enjoyed what I was doing and I enjoyed the people I was working with. I always said, the library was never boring.”

Rodney arrived at WSSU well-prepared for the challenges, with an MSLS, Ph.D., and more than 15 years of academic library experience at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). A native of Durham, N.C., Rodney attended NCCU as an undergraduate, initially planning to become a history teacher, but faculty encouraged her to add a library science minor because it offered more career options. She also got a job in the NCCU library after the director noticed her waiting each day for her sister-in-law, who worked in the library, so they could drive home together. This was the first in a series of “right-place, right-time” moments Rodney said helped shape her career.  

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Rodney enrolled in the MSLS program at NCCU. Working in the serials department of the library made for an easy commute (“I just walked down the hall and took the classes,” she recalled), and Rodney stayed with the NCCU library for over a decade after finishing her graduate degree. 

She was there on the day when Edward Holley, Dean of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Library Science, came to discuss his school’s plan to begin offering doctoral degrees and its interest in recruiting African-Americans to the program. Rodney became UNC’s first, and during her time the only, African-American library science Ph.D. student. She credits the faculty for getting the program off to a good start. 

“They all wanted that program to succeed,” she said. “When you have a unified team, it makes a difference. Everybody was working for the same goal. They wanted students to graduate with knowledge, with a certain level of capability and respect to become leaders in the field.” 

In particular, Rodney fondly remembers Robert Broadus, her dissertation committee chair, Haynes McMullen, who taught library history, Fred Roper, who along with Holley regularly conveyed his interest and desire to see students succeed, and Lester Asheim. 
“Dr. Asheim was such a gentlemen and scholar, and I admired him tremendously,” Rodney said. “His grace, demeanor, and authority reminded me a lot of my grandmother, who was a very strong woman. I saw the same traits in him.”

After completing her coursework, Rodney returned to work at NCCU while finishing her dissertation, “The Influence of Certain Variables on Collection Use at Three Historically Black Liberal Arts Colleges.” She was promoted to head of reference, but not long after, the vice chancellor for academic affairs at WSSU contacted Holley in search of a library director, and Holley recommended Rodney. “Like they say, the rest is history,” Rodney said. 

That history includes a number of significant milestones, both for the WSSU library and for librarianship in general. Rodney managed the library during construction of an addition and extensive renovations that spanned between 1988 and 1996, and another refurbishment between 2008 and 2012 that brought additional meeting and study spaces, a larger instruction classroom, and an expanded media production lab. She oversaw the library’s transition from card to online catalogue and the rapid expansion of World Wide Web resources like NC LIVE, which in turn required the library to provide computers and Internet access. The proliferation of new technology also resulted in a change in students’ mindsets, prompting Rodney and other librarians to adopt new strategies to demonstrate the value of their services.

“Students came in knowing how to use computers, thinking that technology was going to answer every question they had, and that they knew how to find every answer that they needed, which was usually not the case at all,” Rodney said.  

Over the years, the library’s staff increased from five librarians and 10 support persons to 13 professionals, 10 technical specialists, and 10 part-time employees. Rodney is especially pleased that 10 former employees have gone on to earn library sciences degrees and two have advanced to administrative positions at other academic libraries. She hopes to soon see two complete their doctorates. She is also proud of the strong information literacy program the library developed, enabling it to offer instruction to every program on campus, provide over 360 information sessions, and embed librarians in four disciplines.  

To help finance the library’s improvements while still growing its endowment, Rodney and others founded the Friends of the Library Organization, which hosted annual programs and activities meant to not only fundraise, but also to inform and entertain the community. The need to provide original entertainment for some of these events motivated Rodney to try her hand at a new endeavor–playwriting. She ultimately penned three short plays there were performed: Zelda is Dead, a murder mystery based on the life of Zora Neal Hurston; Black Diamonds, a fictionalized history of her mother’s family including two daughters who attained college educations in the late 1800s; and India’s Story, a dramatization of her mother’s life and the impact she made on the community. 

“It was very strange, but very enlightening and uplifting to see the words that I put on paper come to life,” Rodney said. 

In another effort to boost the library’s endowment, Rodney compiled alumni biographies, assisted by the library staff who transformed them into video biographies, which were then presented by the WSSU’s Slater Book Society. While she is proud of these works, Rodney said the best biography she produced was for her late husband, Rev. Cedric S. Rodney, when he was retiring from his pastorate. 

In addition to the responsibilities she juggled at WSSU, Rodney served on national, state, and local committees, including the Salem College and Academy Board of Trustees and the NC Digital Heritage Center. She is a member of the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) Board of Visitors and has been a generous supporter of SILS, especially the SILS Alumni Inclusion and Diversity (SAID) Committee.   

Since retiring, Rodney has been working on a collection of prayers that her late husband shared with the community, and exploring other activities like horticulture and cooking classes. She advises current and future librarians to be flexible and open to whatever the future has in store. 

“Be ready for change, and truly know how to make change happen,” she said. “Everything is so temporary now, you cannot be focused on one thing or think there is only one way to get something done. You have to be willing and able to hear new ideas, embrace new ideas and keep moving forward.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 SILS newsletter (pdf).