From humble beginnings
This article is reprinted courtesy of Washington University's The Record
From humble beginnings
Associate Dean Virginia Toliver has come a long way from rural Mississippi
By Andy Clendennen
Virginia Toliver (left), associate dean of University Libraries, chats with Debora Spraggins, library business officer for Olin Library. "What everyone who meets Virginia discovers right away is her great sense of humor and her infectious laugh," says colleague Joy Lowery. "She's one of a kind!" By the way those are framed R2C2H2 pictures in the background.
She was so convinced that she had blown her interview with Washington University that Virginia Toliver had packed up her belongings and sent most of them back to the University of Southern Mississippi, fully anticipating a return to her previous job.
Then came the call.
"They told me I was selected," Toliver recalls with a laugh, "so I just started unpacking and looking for a place to live."
And 25 years later, she's still here, having risen through the ranks of the University Libraries' administration to become associate dean.
"Virginia touches many aspects of the Libraries, the University and the community," says Shirley Baker, dean of libraries and vice chancellor for information technology. "She is active in her church both locally and nationally and has been key to a number of social support groups here in St. Louis.
"None of us in the Libraries will ever forget her three-year leadership of our Olin Library renovation, putting off her knee-replacement until we finished. Most libraries assign someone to deal only with renovation; Virginia managed both renovation and her regular broad administrative duties. "
The story of how a girl, born and raised in a rural area outside of Tupelo, Miss., rose to associate dean of a major academic library system is a circuitous one indeed.
Even though her parents lived right next door, Toliver was raised mainly by her grandparents, and she recalls "Big Mama" — known to those outside the family as her grandmother — as being "the matriarch of the family."
And Big Mama is a person that keeps cropping up at various points in Toliver's life.
"It was interesting, neither of my grandparents had any formal education," Toliver says. "Big Mama had to quit school when she was in the second grade to care for siblings while her parents sharecropped there in Mississippi, but she instilled in me the principles that are really the essence of who I am and what I am, both professionally and personally.
"Strong work ethics, determination, a compassion for people — for humankind — and a steadfast faith. Those are the principles that have guided me throughout."
Toliver's mother and father both taught in the Mississippi Public School System, and that in itself is quite an accomplishment as her mother was a first-generation high school graduate.
But Big Mama wasn't willing to stop with just one educated offspring. She was determined that all of her descendents would be educated.
"Not having a formal education, she knew how limiting that was," Toliver says.
"Remember, we're talking about Mississippi in the '50s and '60s, opportunities were limited for blacks even with an education and were non-existent for those without an education.
"She did not want us to be stuck on the farm; she wanted us to be able to go beyond that and knew that education was the means for achieving that."
So, following her high-school graduation, Toliver heeded Big Mama's advice and headed for Jackson State University, where she earned a degree in English literature because "I was going to write that Great American Novel. Never have written a line, though," she says, laughing.
It was at Jackson State where she first tasted the library profession and got her feet wet in cataloging.
It was an eye-opening experience from the start.
"I was not aware of all the things that go into making up a library, so my job was my first introduction to the library profession," she says. "I didn't even know what it took to get a book on the shelf. "
One of the requirements of working at the Jackson State library was working one night a week in public services, which fit Toliver perfectly.
"I looked forward to that night because I have a passion for people, and one of the things I found in public service is that I was fascinated with the reference librarians," she says. "The students would come up with questions and I had no idea how to answer them, and would refer them to the reference librarians, and they'd frantically run around and try to get the answer and I thought 'that's what I want to do.'
"I enjoyed the search for knowledge and information, so I decided to ultimately get a library degree and be a reference librarian."
To that end, after having a daughter and working a bit longer at Jackson State, Toliver was finally convinced by the library's director to go to graduate school.
By then a single mother, Toliver was hesitant — until her grandmother again came to the rescue and took care of baby Wilmetta while Toliver earned a master's degree from the University of Illinois.
Toliver family Courtesy Photo
"Spoiling grandbabies is a great pastime," says Toliver, here with Mawdo Malik (3 months) and Coumba Taïba (2 1/2).
Then it was off to her first professional job, as head of the serials unit at Alcorn State University's library. She also served as acting library director for three years.
That was Toliver's first taste of a university library's administration, including budgeting, management, personnel, "things that I never thought I'd need again in life," she laughs.
Following an internship in 1977 at Livermore Lab in California, Toliver became coordinator in the new field of information retrieval at the University of Southern Mississippi.
While at Southern Miss, she heard about the Council of Library Resources and its academic library management internship. For several years the council selected librarians in middle management positions and assigned them to accomplished Association of Research Libraries mentors as a way to expose them to upper-management positions.
Each year, the council selected five interns and in 1981, Toliver became the first African-American female selected for the program and was assigned to Washington University and Charles Churchwell, then the Olin Library dean.
"It was a different world," she says of coming to WUSTL's library system after her time at other smaller institutions. "It was a totally different world because the other libraries did not compare to Washington University — the size, the academic programs, the libraries — the fact that there were libraries throughout the campus as opposed to a central library was amazing."
During her internship year, a vacancy arose at WUSTL and she applied and was one of the few selected for an interview.
And was convinced she bombed the process until she received the phone call.
Over the past 25 years, she's taken on more and more responsibilities both in the University library and the library profession and is involved in the new direction the profession is taking.
"Issues involving electronic access, assessment, qualitative rather than quantitative measures of library effectiveness are the kinds of things that create transformation in the profession and it's exciting to be a part of that," Toliver says.
And this is in addition to her other administrative responsibilities including the budget, accounting, support services, administrative support, communications and events, facilities and library human resources. She performs these functions for the Olin Library and its nine departmental or school libraries.
"It's enough to keep you busy and challenged," she laughs. "But I enjoy my job, I have the frustrating times but because my job is so multi-faceted, I find that I am constantly facing new challenges and I find that very rejuvenating."
But perhaps the biggest challenge Toliver has taken on was the multi-year Olin Library renovation, which she coordinated. "For three years, I lived, slept and breathed renovation," she says.
She does community service work through her church, Cote Brilliante Presbyterian, and was an HIV/AIDS facilitator for support groups for several years.
Now she's involved with the National Committee on Self Development of the Presbyterian Church, a ministry that funds groups of economically oppressed and impoverished people seeking to change the structures that perpetuate poverty, oppression and injustice. She also serves on the Board of Directors of Eden Theological Seminary.
"I've worked for Virginia for going on seven years, and she never ceases to amaze me," says Joy Lowery, director of communications and special events at Olin Library. "She inspires respect and is a fierce advocate for her staff, the Libraries and her many interests. She's a straight shooter who's also perceptive, smart, fair, decisive and never shrinks from a challenge, all important traits in her demanding job.
"But more often I think of her as humane and tender-hearted. I've seen her mentor staff, nurture students and giggle with her granddaughter. What everyone who meets Virginia discovers right away is her great sense of humor and her infectious laugh. She's one of a kind!"
Of course, being a librarian, Toliver reads. She serves on the literary awards committee of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and each year gets to help select the best African-American works in fiction, nonfiction and other categories.
But all of those activities take a backseat to her real pastime — her granddaughter, Coumba Taïba (2 1/2) and grandson Mawdo Malik (3 months). "Spoiling grandbabies is a great pastime," she says with a laugh, "I'd recommend it to anybody."
She also spends more time with her daughter, Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, Ph.D., assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences and lecturer in African & African American Studies in Arts & Sciences. She had lived in France for three years, New York before that and also spent three years in Africa before she and her husband, El Hadji Samba Amadou Diallo, Ph.D., moved to St. Louis in 2005.
However, despite all of her jobs and accomplishments, there's one thing that Toliver still has not achieved. Yet, at this point in her career, she's OK with that.
"The one thing I've never been yet is a reference librarian," she says. "And at this point in life and with the changes taking place and how they work, I don't want to be a reference librarian anymore!"
Chances are, Big Mama would be OK with that, too.
Some More Info On Ms. Virgina 'Boss' Toliver:
Title: Associate dean, University Libraries
Family: Daughter Wilmetta Toliver-Diallo, Ph.D., an assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences.
Hobbies: Volunteering to help people, reading books and spending time with her grandchildren.
Although busy with her job, she still finds time to really satisfy her passion for people. When not in the office, she's a campus contact for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, works on several University committees and is a progress counselor for the College of Arts & Sciences.