VDOT’s Ken Winter Wants to Help Keep You Moving

April 2024
text saying member spotlight on the left with a portrait of Ken Winter on the right of

Tucked away off a path on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville sits one of the country’s largest specialized transportation libraries.

Experts and graduate students working for the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) research division bustle past its shelves daily. Some are preparing to test sensors that will be embedded into Virginia’s roadways while others are assessing special lasers to monitor road surface roughness.

The VDOT Research Library stands at the ready to assist in transportation research across Virginia and beyond.

“Every day we’ve got new questions coming in,” Associate Director Ken Winter says.

Winter oversees the library, ensuring staff have the resources and training needed to support customers, track changes in agency needs and collaborate with other departments. The library also supports non-employees who are doing transportation research. Winter and his staff often work with libraries nationwide and abroad, helping to fill gaps in research or lending documents.

“We’re not subject matter experts … but as information professionals we have expertise in how information is created, where it resides and how to get it to the people who need to use it,” he explains.

The research library got its start in 1945, when VDOT’s first director of research, Tilton Shelburne, made his own collection of 118 books, bulletins and periodicals available to staff.

“The value of an adequate reference library cannot be overemphasized,” Shelburne writes in an archived memorandum.

Although the collection was impressive for its time, Winter says it was just a tiny blip by today’s standards. Yet, the library still holds true to Shelburne’s founding principles:

  • Provide an organized collection of relevant transportation reference materials.
  • Make checkouts available to all VDOT staff.
  • Be open to discuss user needs.

Shelburne would be amazed to learn that the VDOT Research Library’s online catalog now contains 174,000 records, with 70,000 volumes on the shelves and available for lending. More than 36,000 items in the collection are not held by any of the five largest universities in Virginia, and about 2,500 artifacts are only found at VDOT.

Through its anthology of study materials, Winter estimates the research library has helped nearly 300 VDOT employees prepare for and pass their professional engineering certification exams. The materials are expensive to purchase, he says, but the library’s exam study collections can be loaned many times.

“It is a perfect use case for the VDOT library,” Winter says. “We enjoy supporting more than just research but also professional development for VDOT engineers.”

Winter started at the library in 2002. His day one mission — take the library online.

Over the course of nearly 50 years, the collection had rapidly expanded but without the benefit of an online cataloging system. Winter realized that no one knew just how much reference material was stored, or the unique nature of some of the information. When he and other staff set out to create the library’s online catalog, they estimated it would archive about 14,000 items. By the time they completed the inventory in 2005, more than 21,300 items were available digitally.

Winter received the VDOT Commissioner’s Award for Outstanding Achievement that year, a prestigious honor that recognizes specific, measurable and remarkable accomplishments within the agency.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to bring the library to the people and not make the people have to come to the library,” Winter says.

Overseeing a large research library can be all-consuming. In his free time, Winter unplugs through backpacking and camping. He looks forward to retiring one day and spending more time on trails and in nature. Until then, he’s focused on saving for that future.

Financial planning is a lot like library work, he says. One can never educate yourself too much. His advice to other VRS members, especially new ones, is not to wait. “Take advantage of those tools and the guidance that you can get from VRS,” Winter says. “And save on a regular basis.”