Library luminary eager to share practical expertise

By Samantha Herndon Monday, October 2, 2023

After 21 years at OCLC, most recently as vice president for research and membership & chief strategist, Lorcan Dempsey was ready for a change. The opportunity to serve as the University of Washington Information School’s Distinguished Practitioner in Residence (DPIR) came at the right time for the librarian, writer and advisor.

While at OCLC, a global library organization headquartered in Dublin, Ohio, that provides shared technology services, original research, and community programs, Dempsey wrote extensively for the library community. His research articles and public scholarship share guidance and resources for working librarians.

The practical and technological skills he gained through this experience will translate to the classroom as Dempsey teaches in the Master of Library and Information Science program.

iSchool Dean Anind Dey says, “We're very lucky to have Lorcan Dempsey as our newest DPIR. Lorcan brings an incredible amount of experience working with libraries, their community programs and the technology they need. As we continue to work on the technology-focused aspects of the MLIS curriculum, his on-the-ground expertise will be very helpful.”

With a deep interest in operational and intellectual collaborations, Dempsey brings a curiosity about the future of libraries and their evolving roles, and a commitment to sharing what he has learned with the next generation of librarians and information scientists.

Asked what he will teach iSchool students, “One is the relational element,” he says. “Libraries are very much social organizations, and they are embedded in the communities they serve. Increasingly, libraries are evolving in discussion with communities.

“A second one is storytelling. Because of the way the library is changing, it’s important to be able to tell a story about what the library is and what the library does.”

Dempsey jokes, “Because we’re in a transitional stage at the moment, a library director’s elevator pitch now requires a very tall building.”

"He’s been a singular voice, for decades now, guiding the profession’s attention to the things that make it possible for libraries to excel in the contemporary world."

He is also very interested in how libraries manifest culture and values, and in how deficits in equity and empathy have been foregrounded in recent years. “Libraries are evolving,” he says, “to more readily recognize and respond to all the communities they serve. This is true across all areas, in recruitment, collections, programming, and in collaboration and partnerships. It is important to reflect this shift and challenge in teaching.”

Trained in the literary hub of Dublin, Ireland — his hometown — Dempsey gained some of his first professional experience working at the Dublin City Public Library.

He then relocated to work in the United Kingdom for over a decade. Dempsey served in leadership roles at UKOLN, the UK Office for Library and Information Networking at the University of Bath, and then at JISC at King’s College London, which supports higher education in the UK. He has presented his research all over the world, most recently at the AMICAL Conference in Ifrane, Morocco.

Dempsey has written extensively on topics such as libraries, archives and museums as memory institutions; methods for improving library collaboration; and transitions from collections-based libraries to relational institutions.

“Lorcan Dempsey’s contributions as a library thought leader are unparalleled,” says Carole Palmer, associate dean for research at the Information School. “He’s been a singular voice, for decades now, guiding the profession’s attention to the things that make it possible for libraries to excel in the contemporary world. Lorcan always probes the conceptual, but never neglects the practical.

“That was all on top of his day job as a top executive running the largest library R&D operation in the most important library cooperative organization in the country,” Palmer adds. This variety of interests will serve him well as a member of the faculty.

The Distinguished Practitioner in Residence position, funded by a 10-year, $1.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is designed to bring practical knowledge to research and coursework at the school. The appointment involves teaching iSchool courses, collaborating on curriculum developments in the MLIS program, and conducting research related to the future of libraries, a key iSchool initiative.

Dempsey is the iSchool’s fourth Distinguished Practitioner in Residence. Susan Hildreth originated the role, followed by Rolf Hapel. Cindy Aden held the role most recently, and she will remain at the iSchool as a teaching professor and as the new MLIS chair.

In his writing and teaching, Dempsey enjoys the challenge of explaining complex concepts and  contributing to tangible improvements.

“My incentive would always be to inform practice or to influence policy,” he says. If a library director flies off to a conference and brings along one of Dempsey’s publications, he counts that as a win. “Success is based on impact,” he says.

“It’s hard to overstate how fortunate our students and the entire iSchool community are to have this time to learn and work together with Lorcan,” says Palmer.