Rose Timmons Dawson (MSLS '86) began her library career the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. Day became a federal holiday. Dawson created three different programs to help educate young patrons about the civil rights leader. As the first African-American children’s librarian in an area of Washington, D.C., with a predominantly white population, Dawson encountered some resistance to the new curricula, particularly from her branch manager. She persevered and ultimately the programs became hugely successful, with two elementary schools in the area requesting that she deliver them to every single class.
Trailblazing as the first African-American to hold a position and organizing high-impact, high-profile programs have become themes of Dawson’s career. From her initial role with the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL), she advanced to head of the children’s division of DCPL’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Under her leadership, the division consistently garnered the highest-circulation and highest occupancy counts in the building.
In 1999, Dawson earned her Certification in Public Management from George Washington University and became DCPL’s Change Agent for Internal Affairs, managing several grant projects including a half million dollar grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. As the Coordinator of Community Youth Services – her last position with DCPL – she increased summer reading program participation by 100 percent and coordinated visits from prominent guests, including First Lady Laura Bush, musician Al Jarreau, and youth advocate Alma Powell.
Dawson became the first African-American Deputy Director of the Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Va., in 2005, and after a nationwide search, she became the first African-American Director of the Library. She now oversees a system with an annual budget of $7.8 million, four branches, and 150 staff members. During her tenure as director, Dawson has contended with budget cuts ranging from 4% to nearly 15%, but she has succeeded in maintaining her full staff and facilities.
The UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS) presented Dawson with its Distinguished Alumni Award during its annual spring commencement on May 12, recognizing the significant impact she has made on the field of librarianship.
Dawson said her SILS education played a key role in her success from the very beginning. Faculty members Mary Kingsbury, Marilyn Miller, and Susan Steinfirst provided a thorough grounding in youth services librarianship, and Dawson said the influence of these “Iron Ladies” continued after she completed her degree.
“They were a force of nature within the program and had reputations throughout library land,” she said. “I interviewed for a job on a Friday and was offered a position on that Tuesday, despite the fact that I was initially told there were no vacancies.”
Dawson earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Education and MSLS from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a life member of the Carolina Alumni Association and the SILS Alumni Association, and served on the host committee for the SILS in Washington, D.C., event in 2017. In addition, she is a life member of the American Library Association (ALA), as well as a member of the Black Caucus of the ALA (BCALA), the ALA Ethnic Multicultural Information Exchange Roundtable, Association to Library Services to Children (ALSC), Metropolitan Washington Council of Black Librarians, and Public Library Association (PLA). In 2010, she received the Distinguished Service to the Library Profession Award from BCALA.
Dawson said in both her professional and personal life, she subscribes to the same philosophy: “It takes a village.” She relies on mentors and coaches to help her stay focused and to provide support, and involvement with professional organizations has enabled her to build a network of colleagues that she can turn to when needed. She has also taken advantage of executive leadership programs and other leadership opportunities, which have helped open new doors.
“When juggling multiple responsibilities, the key to success is knowing that you can’t and don’t have to do it alone,” she said.