Dean of University Libraries retires after 43 years at the university


Mia Hennen

Kathy Downes has been at Wichita State for 43 years, serving various roles within the university library. Downes will retire in Spring 2023.

“I’ll only be here two years,” Kathy Downes said back in 1979. 

“Then as they say, ‘Life happened.’”

Now, 43 years and four different job titles later, Downes, Dean of University Libraries is retiring from Wichita State at the end of the semester.

“I kept getting interesting things to do here,” Downes said. “Each job brought a different viewpoint or a different element or aspect of just the overall library services and collections … Before I knew it, I’ve been here a long time.”

At the beginning of Downes’ journey, the campus had 68 buildings, and the big thing in the library was who got the electric typewriter.

Now, there are 95 buildings just on the campus; 22 buildings in other locations.

Downes always told herself when her job stopped being interesting, she’d look for another job. Now, even though she still finds it interesting, she’s ready “for somebody else to have some fun.”

Downes was born into a military family and moved around constantly. She went to three different high schools and traveled all across the country.

After high school, Downes went to Mississippi University for Women, where she got her undergraduate degree in Biology, Physical Sciences and Library Sciences. 

Once her undergraduate program was complete, she went to Kentucky University for a graduate degree in Library Science. 

After graduation, Downes applied to a few different places.

“When I finished up my graduate studies, it wasn’t like today where you have,” Downes said. “Everything was paper-based.” 

She thought Wichita State looked like a good place to start.

Downes’ first role in the library was as a biomedical librarian. She worked with different departments in providing in-depth references and locations of varying resources. 

At this time, everything was mediated searching, where a student would set up a consultation with a reference librarian to help put together a list of terms and other refined information and then send off the list. About a week later, the student would get a printout with book titles on it. 

Now, students are able to search the database themselves and get results instantly. And with that, the librarian’s role has now changed.

Downes said the role of a librarian now is to empower students, who have been a big inspiration for her. 

“It’s hard not to be positive when you’re surrounded by positive people,” Downes said. “And that motivates because you want to make sure that you do your part.”

Rachel Crane, Associate Professor and Music and Fine Arts Librarian, said that Downes has always been very concerned with students and what benefits them.

“She’s eager to jump in to help in the best possible way,” Crane said. 

Through Downes’ second job, Administrative Services Librarian, she played a key role in helping expand Ablah Library from 1985-1990.

“She embraces change. She isn’t a leader who doesn’t want change,” Angela Paul, women’s studies librarian, said. 

Before becoming dean, Downes served as assistant dean (originally called associate dean) and then interim dean. 

In 2015, Don Gilstrap, former dean, left the university. Soon, Downes was offered the position. 

At the opportunity, Downes said she thought, “Well, I think I can have fun.”

Downes wanted to help move the university forward. 

“That’s what I want to do in every job: ‘Can I make it better?” … ‘Can we go forward? Can we make people’s jobs easier? … ‘Can we bring services to the library that will help students succeed more, help faculty succeed more, or complement what they’re doing?’ Then, that’s where you want to be. You want to make things better.”

As dean, Downes has various roles, one was to work with donations to the library. 

Mary Nelson, special collections research and operations manager, said Downes went with her to a potential donor’s house of someone who had died, and Downes stayed calm, listening empathetically. 

“It kind of showered her heart, that she’s like ‘I’m with you, I’m next to you, let’s see what we can do,’” Nelson said.

Nelson said Downes always injects a little energy into the situation.

“Kind of an energizer bunny kind of person,” Nelson said. 

While Downes said there were still things to be done, she felt it was the right time to retire.

“You don’t want to leave when something is not going well,” Downes said. “You want to sort of pass the baton …  Make sure it’s in good shape so that the next person comes in can take it further.”

“Everything,” is what Downes plans to do in retirement. 

“You can only do so much but yeah, I love traveling, I love reading, ‘who knew?” Downes said, “I have various hobbies. It’d be great to have more time to give back to the community.”