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Ohio University Libraries mourns the passing of Dean Emeritus Dr. Hwa-Wei Lee

Dr. Hwa-Wei Lee, dean emeritus of Ohio University Libraries whose lifelong commitment in the field of international librarianship were well known and marked by outstanding achievements, such as the 2015 Melvile Dewey Medal for “creative leadership of high order,” passed away peacefully Dec. 17, 2023, surrounded by family. 

A celebrated legacy
As dean of University Libraries from 1978-1999, one of Lee’s major priorities was to help faculty and students reach new levels of achievement through a world-class library. During his tenure, University Libraries became one of the top 100+ academic research libraries in North America after achieving membership to the prestigious Association of Research Libraries. 

A highly respected library professional, Lee was well known for his contributions in the field of librarianship, especially in relation to collaborations between the United States and China. His international reputation for building cooperative ties with libraries throughout the world enabled Ohio University to establish depository agreements with nations and national libraries on multiple continents. 

Lee was also instrumental in the founding of University Libraries’ Shao You-Bao Center for Overseas Chinese Documentation and Research, which houses the Overseas Chinese Collection, and helping to organize the International Librarians Internship Program, which provided a mutual educational exchange program to learn and share innovative practices. 

Academic and innovative excellence
Early on, recognizing the potential for expanding University Libraries’ services, Lee spearheaded a proposal to Ohio University for the establishment of an integrated computer-automated library system that could aid in cataloging materials and circulation tasks — an innovative initiative from the decades-long use of a card catalog.

Hwa Mei Lee 2
Dr. Hwa-Wei Lee, circa 1983.

Within a few years, this automated system eventually led to a collaboration with OCLC with their development of an online cataloging system for networking library materials. In 1971, Ohio University Libraries became the first in the world to contribute an electronic library record to what was then known as the Ohio College Library Center. This online cataloging and retrieval system revolutionized not only electronically shared library records but also research and scholarship worldwide. 

During his more than 20 years tenure, Lee provided extraordinary leadership that not only enhanced the standing of Ohio University Libraries within the state of Ohio, but also boosted its collections and prestige to new national and international heights. 

Lifetime of commitment
Within just a few years, Lee was coaxed out of retirement to become the first Asian American librarian to serve as chief of its Asian Division at the Library of Congress from 2003-2008.

Over his professional career, he authored seven books and hundreds of published academic articles. His biography “The Sage in the Cathedral of Books,” published in 2011, was later translated into English and re-published by Ohio University Libraries in 2016.

Additionally, Lee was the recipient of several national and international awards including the 1991 John Ames Humphrey Award from the American Library Association; the 2016 Outstanding Library Leadership Award, in memory of Dr. Margaret Chang Fung, from the  Chinese American Librarians Association; the 2018 Medal of Appreciation from Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand; and multiple awards from the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, the Library Association of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and OhioLINK, of which, he was a founding director, among others.

“Dr. Lee made an enduring mark on the Ohio University Libraries, such as the Hwa-Wei Lee Center for International Collections, rich with unique and valuable research materials used not just locally but also worldwide; the Hwa-Wei Lee Library Annex, a tremendous asset to the preservation of our collections; and our membership in the Association of Research Libraries speaks to the research strength of the entire University,” Janet Hulm, interim dean of University Libraries, said.  “And we have colleagues who remember Dr. Lee and continue to share stories of his innovations and generous spirit. We were so fortunate to have had him as our dean at a moment in time when libraries were rapidly changing.  His leadership through that period continues to impact much of what we do every single day.”

Born in China, Lee was preceded in death by his brother Min Hwa-Hsin Lee and his aunt, Phyllis Hsiao-Chu Wang, who was instrumental in bringing him to the United States.

After living a full and celebrated life, Lee left this world as a devoted husband to Mary, his wife of almost 65 years, a loving father to their six children, a doting grandfather to 11 grandchildren and a proud “Poppy” to three great-grandchildren. He was known for his devotion to family as well as his generous heart and gentle spirit. 

A memorial service will be held in Lee’s honor on Feb. 17, 2024, in Rockledge, Florida. In lieu of flowers, Lee wished that gifts in his honor be made to the Hwa-Wei Lee Center for International Collections Endowment at Ohio University Libraries. 

Gifts can be made online or mailed directly to: The Ohio University Foundation, PO Box 869, Athens, OH 45701-0869. Please include a note stating the gift is a memorial gift to the (Hwa Wei Lee) Center for International Collections Endowment.

For more information, contact Misti Smith, associate director of Development, at

January 12, 2024
Kate Mason