May 8, 2007
Deborah L. Jacobs, City Librarian
SEATTLE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Although Deborah Jacobs loved to read as a child, she took a page from her mother, who told her, "Get your head out of that book and go ride your bike outside." Jacobs knew at an early age that she wanted to serve her local community. And she saw working at a public library – what she calls "one of the last bastions of pure, true intellectual freedom" – as the best way to do that. Jacobs first ventured down this path 31 years ago, after earning a graduate degree in library science and securing a position as a children's librarian in Bend, Ore. Today she is Seattle's city librarian, a post she's commanded for nearly a decade, leading a staff of 700 and overseeing the central library, 26 neighborhood branches and the library's mobile services. In the process, she's raised an unprecedented $82 million for our local library system, replaced the downtown library, revamped most of the neighborhood branches and collected numerous awards.
Q: With so many careers in public service available, what made you choose being a librarian?
A: I grew up thinking that I wanted to be an attorney because my life goal – as corny as this sounds – was to make the world a better place. And when I was an undergrad at Mills College, it really hit me one day that if I truly wanted to make the world a better place, that libraries were the place to make major, communitywide changes. Because we really are the center of democracy. We provide lifelong learning from the cradle to the grave. We're one of the last places people can be together for free, besides in parks. We help kids with early learning, we help immigrants, we help students.
Q: What were you doing before you became Seattle's city librarian?
A: I was the library director at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library in Corvallis, Ore. We had a central library and then branches in three rural communities and mobile service to the farther-out rural areas in the county.
"I always feel sorry for people who aren't using our libraries. There are programs and services that are untapped by many people in Seattle. We have online databases. And we have a 24-hour reference librarian that you can chat with online when you're working on a term paper at 2 a.m."
Q: As the city librarian, what's a typical day like for you?
A: I spend a lot of time in meetings and advocating for the library with local community groups and various organizations, such as the Downtown Seattle Association, Seattle Town Hall and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. I also get the word out about the myriad and rich services we offer, for instance, our 24-hour library that 4.5 million people used last year but that other people don't even know about. Besides advocacy, you could call that raising awareness of the library.
I also work on fundraising that involves both private donors and working with government officials who support the library. And meeting with staff and hearing more about their vision for the library. I really work a lot on trying to coach and inspire staff. And then I also work closely with neighborhoods and other community groups. I remain visible in the community, really talking to people about what their hopes are for the new library.
Q: What's your favorite part of the job?
A: Working internally and externally to hear the voices of the people and to hear their vision for the library.
Q: What's your least favorite part?
A: Having to cut the budget when those times come about.
Q: What career advice can you offer those who want to become a librarian?
A: You can take anything as an undergrad. [Jacobs studied government.] And you should research graduate schools that have master's degrees in library science [aka information science]. There's no school that has a better program in that than the University of Washington. And I'm not just saying that as a cheerleader; I'm saying that as an employer. Also, by volunteering, you can get a sense of whether you really like libraries, whether you like the people that come into them, and recognizing the difference between public and academic libraries.
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