Howard Dodson Jr., the new head of the Howard University Libraries (Photo by Justin Knight, courtesy of Howard University)

In April 2010, Dodson retired from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City after 25 years at its helm. Rather than settle in for some leisure time, in July 2011, he became a consultant to the Howard system. Earlier this month took on the challenging full-time job of managing a book-based system that has to move quickly into the digital age.

“The university libraries are being challenged to find some way of repositioning themselves not as gatekeepers, but as gateways to authentic knowledge,” said Dodson, 72.

The scholars and amateur historians who specialize in black history are very familiar with Dodson. In New York he oversaw the world-famous Schomburg collection, part of the New York Public Library. It is a prime destination for material on Malcolm X, Arthur Ashe, Lorraine Hansbery, Maya Angelou and St. Clair Drake. The library has more than 10 million items.

Dodson has also moved in and out of Washington’s cultural life as a former Peace Corps volunteer and a member of the national staff. He was a member of the commission that recommended building the National Museum of African American History and Culture and a former consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Howard libraries have 2.5 million volumes. But the Moorland center has always rivaled the Schomburg in prestige. In its collections are decades of black newspapers, papers from Benjamin Banneker, W.C. Handy, Ralph Bunche, Paul Robeson, Charles Drew, Vernon Jordan, Edward Brooke and E. Franklin Frazier.

Dodson says the libraries have been languishing.

“With Howard specifically one of the challenges is how to better align its collections and services with the research agenda of the university and the curriculum,” said Dodson. In recent years the Moorland-Spingarn center reduced the purchase of books, reduced its operating hours and has been administered by an interim director.

With belt-tightening everywhere, Howard only invested $8 million in the libraries in 2010. “The numbers for its peer organizations in the same year was $14 to $40 million. In 1986 Howard’s libraries ranked among the top 25 percent of the research institutions. Today they are at the bottom,” Dodson explained.

To address the needs for newer materials, the libraries have joined the Washington Research Consortium Library, an effort of nine library systems. Dodson plans to increase the days the library is open to all researchers and launch a capital campaign, not only to modernize, but to serve the university’s population of black specialists and the outside scholars who are studying black culture, the sciences and organizations.

And, of course, catch up with the march to digitization. “It is a high priority to get on line. The library has such important collections, collections that are strong and rich and we need to get them processed,” said Dodson.