Deborah The Librarian -- How The Seattle Public Library Got Its Groove Back
ONCE UPON A TIME, oh, about two years ago, there was a beautiful city in the northwest corner of the United States that needed a new librarian. The city had water and mountains, airplane factories and computer companies, abysmal traffic and abundant connections to the World Wide Web. It had grandmas and graduate students, boomers and babies, refugees, recreational vehicles and the world's richest man.
Most of all, the city of Seattle had lots of people who loved to use the library.
The people used the Seattle Public Library so much that its 1.9 million books and thousands of music scores, vintage photographs, jazzy CDs, trendy videos, far-flung maps and foreign-language newspapers went round and round 6,658,123 times in one year!
All the knowledge of humankind could be found somewhere in the library's downtown building or 22 neighborhood branches.
You could look up lyrics to "Auld Lang Syne," thumb through a Model A Ford repair manual, borrow a framed van Gogh print, browse through a Kurt Cobain scrapbook, check out the musical score to "Don Giovanni," plan a home business, peruse architects' drawings from 1920s Bungalow magazines, watch a puppet show, practice speaking English, design a Web site, study for a citizenship test, take home a box of preschool puppets, marvel at 2,000 famous autographs, read original correspondence from the Amistad trial, explore early aviation and ballooning documents, figure the price of GM stock in 1958, calculate tariffs in Brazil, research recipes for an authentic British Boxing Day party, search for the birthplace of your great-great-great aunt, peruse a 1903 edition of "The Wizard of Oz," read Vietnamese newspapers and Swahili poetry, and walk your fingers through Saskatchewan telephone books and Singapore street maps.
So many treasures! But the library itself was falling apart.
The Beacon Hill branch had chapped linoleum, arthritic walls and an asthmatic air conditioner. The Northeast branch was so crowded that if all the borrowed books were returned, there'd be no place to stack them. And the downtown library, a sneezy, frowning sort of a building even when it was new, had become tired, cranky and saggy around the hips, its basement bulging with everything that couldn't fit anywhere else. Also, after absorbing the smell of 4,000 library users a day for almost 40 years, the place, quite frankly, had developed B.O.
Something had to be done. Someone had to do it. But who?
The library trustees knew they needed to find Super Librarian. Someone who could repair, expand and replace dumpy buildings with a single bond. Pass a tax measure voters had already rejected. Comfort an unsettled staff. Dissipate storm clouds lingering after a spat between the previous librarian and the mayor. Quell sibling rivalry between the neighborhoods and downtown. Resolve debate over where to put a bigger central library. Reach out to a zillion different kinds of library users. Expand electronic access into the 21st century. Not only that, the Seattle Public Library had fallen behind on buying new books.
So the Library Board sent heralds trumpeting far and wide to seek a new librarian. Pretty soon more than a hundred applications fluttered back from snowy Buffalo, sunny Sacramento, wooded hamlets and shining burgs all across the land.
The librarian who impressed the trustees most was from the college town of Corvallis, not far down Interstate 5 in Oregon. She had rebuilt the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, ahead of schedule and under budget; successfully championed increased funding for libraries all over the state; fought off a ballot measure that would have banned books by or about homosexuals. She had gained national attention for building library collections and connecting with the community. She was named Library Journal's 1994 Librarian of the Year, the library equivalent of an Olympic gold medal and the Pulitzer Prize.
But the reason the trustees liked Deborah Jacobs best of all?
They liked the librarian because she listened with her heart.
DEBORAH JACOBS would make a marvelous character in a children's book.
The 46-year-old librarian has a dimply smile and a friendly blue gaze behind funky, almost-cat-eye glasses. She changes her style every time you turn the page - pearls with heels for a Library Board meeting; dangly earrings with loafers to sit behind the downtown information desk; a Yankee baseball cap and Corvallis-Benton County Public Library sweatshirt on pre-dawn jogs. She loves to experiment with her hair: round brown curls, short elfin wisps, peroxide dreams and, by the time you read this, she expects to have dyed her tresses bright red.
Yet the main reason Deborah Jacobs belongs in a kid's story is not how she looks on the outside, but who she is on the inside. The librarian is as warm and fuzzy as the stuffed animals on her bed and the wheat-oatmeal bread she often bakes. She is well-liked by so many people (even political rivals) that no matter how you write about her, it comes out sounding like a fairy tale.
Jacobs is so sappy, she gets tears in her eyes talking about a "cushion of caring" in the community, the opportunity to serve the public and the amazing dedication of the library's 538-person staff. Her favorite words are love, heart, passion, listen, library, access, "equal opportunity," "level the playing field" and Jacob Brogan, the name of her charming and articulate 16-year-old son. Few other municipal administrators could, with any plausibility, pull off the phrase "unconditional love" in reference to government employees bustling behind steel desks.
"Libraries are the core of our community and our democracy," Jacobs says. "I believe if you have strong libraries, you have strong communities . . .. I get the feeling each transaction is a special event of kindness, concern and care. Like when I walk into branch libraries . . . the Beacon Hill library where kids are chinning themselves up to the counter . . . It just makes me melt! It's like falling in love!"
But don't mistake Jacobs for a gently daffy Mother Goose. She's more like one of those telephone-booth superheroes. She wears the sweet smile of a children's librarian while not-so-secretly wielding the powerful clout of a savvy politician. In Oregon, Jacobs become such an influential figure her supporters urged her to run for the Legislature or Congress. Instead, she brought her political acumen to Seattle.
Last January, after Jacobs congratulated Mayor Paul Schell on his first State of the City address, the librarian admonished him, "That's the last time you'll give a talk where you don't use the L word at least three times!" Now the mayor is on Jacobs' speed dial and gets frequent reminders to fold "the message of the week about libraries" into his speeches.
Schell: "I wasn't against stadiums, but libraries are more important than entertainment palaces! . . .. I was there on libraries, but I credit Deborah for making them the top agenda item . . ..
"She fills a room. She doesn't just occupy a chair. When she speaks it's not just words that happen. It transcends conversation. It's not an imposing physical presence, more an intellectual and spiritual presence," Schell says. "She listens with both the mind and the heart at the same time."
Soon after she moved to Seattle in November 1997, Jacobs visited every neighborhood in the city, several times, to meet with people and find out what they wanted in their libraries. Four nights a week, even when she was tired and had the flu, Jacobs ventured to community-center gyms, library basements and local restaurants to talk with five or a few hundred citizens. In more than a hundred meetings, the people told her they needed more room for homework help in Ballard, more space for the African-American collection at Douglass-Truth, better lighting for seniors at Green Lake, more kid-friendly space at Columbia, a study and conference room so immigrants could practice English at Lake City, and on and on.
Then Jacobs assembled a $239-million plan to replace the downtown library, renovate 22 neighborhood libraries and build new branches in the International District, Northgate and Delridge. She asked voters to pay for $196.4 million worth with a bond measure, one of the largest chunks of tax money ever requested in the history of public libraries. At the polls last November, 70 percent said yes, the largest percentage of Seattle voters to tax themselves for any reason in city memory. Even those who campaigned against the bond measure, calling it extravagant, became friends with Jacobs. After his side lost to hers in the election, Jay Sauceda, manager of the "No on the Library Bond" campaign, offered to help the library construction oversight committee. Another political rival engraved a plaque for Jacobs, commending her as "1998 Librarian of the Year."
The year of 1998 was like a fairy tale for the Seattle Public Library. And before it ended, a $20-million gift whooshed in from the richest man in the world. It was the largest donation ever to a single public-library system in this country. Bill and Melinda Gates said they wanted the money used to create equal opportunity and level the playing field.
A LONG TIME AGO, there was a girl named Deborah who loved to read. She could sound out words at 3 1/2 and devoured the Bobbsey Twins during kindergarten. Her mother was a single working woman from the projects who married at 16, gave birth to Deborah at 18, divorced, remarried and raised four children in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley suburbs. Even though Deborah's mother never went to college, she believed deeply in the power of reading and fought with local librarians to let her daughter use a children's card to borrow books from the adult section.
More than anything else, Adrienne Rimmel believed in Deborah.
"She was the perfect child . . .. She always got 100 on her spelling tests and she was always very loving . . .. She was the teachers' pet, but she was also her peers' pet . . .. She wanted to be a lawyer and I thought she would be the first woman on the Supreme Court!"
Early on, Deborah absorbed her mother's dynamism, political activism and yearning for social justice. In fifth grade, she was elected the first female class president after persuading girls not to split their vote and persuading a few boys to cast ballots for her, too. In high school, she protested when school administrators abandoned a city-suburbs racial-integration plan. At Mills College, she exchanged her burgundy sweater set and new contact lenses for granny glasses, overalls and combat boots. She protested the Vietnam War and bombing of Cambodia, registered voters in Oakland's poor neighborhoods.
One day, a blue and beautiful Saturday morning, Jacobs sat under a tree in the quadrangle reading an article about a children's librarian for literature class. Suddenly, she jumped up. "My God!" she thought. "There's no reason to be a lawyer . . .. I could read and I could serve and I could be a librarian!"
She ran up the hill to waitress the lunch shift, then phoned her fiance in Los Angeles. "Far out!" he said. "I think I'll become a librarian, too!"
Jacobs earned a master's degree in library science at the University of Oregon, then worked in Bend, Ore., Sacramento and Corvallis. Along the way, she worked in children's departments, mobile library trucks, prison reading programs, reference and extension services. She divorced, remarried, had a son, divorced again and lived with a female partner for 13 years.
You get a sense of Jacobs' life by flipping through her worn reading diary. It's on her night table alongside her dozen or so current books: "World's Fair" by E.L. Doctorow, "No Ordinary Time" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "The Power Broker" by Robert A. Caro, "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell, "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson, "In the Lake of the Woods" by Tim O'Brien, "A Walker in the City" by Alfred Kazin, "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff. (Virtually all her books are borrowed from guess where - and no, she doesn't get special library privileges.)
Most years, the librarian reads 40 or 50 books, including anything new by her favorite author, John Le Carre.
But she read only 28 books in 1992, when she was president of the Oregon Library Association and led the state's librarians' fight against a ballot measure to ban library books that "promote or endorse homosexuality." The measure went down; Oregon's librarians earned top civil-liberties awards; Jacobs, her son and her partner received hate mail and death threats; and Jacobs was stung when she realized her critics were right - the library's collection didn't have enough materials representing Christian and anti-gay points of view.
"How can I defend the library to a Christian parent who doesn't like Madonna's `Sex' if I don't have a book for them on curing homosexuality or teaching sexuality in a Christian home?" So Jacobs phoned an evangelical pastor mentioned in the local newspaper and asked him how the public library could serve his ministry.
"I was dumbfounded," says pastor Ken Himes of Friends of the Family Ministry. That phone call led to new book lists, more pastor friends - and rising library visits by local Christian families. In fact, the Corvallis-Benton Public Library, with 2,000 visitors a day, had a few more patrons than Burger King, the town's next most popular hang-out.
Last year, Jacobs read 28 books despite the bond campaign, night meetings and the rigors of a new job in a new city. Her all-time high was 62 books in 1982, when she was pregnant with Jacob, who is the only thing in the world she treasures more than libraries.
The teenager, who seems to have been practically born at the library, considers his mom's library friends as his family. He took first steps on a library basement ramp and fondly remembers the Corvallis library coming of age as he did. Every Friday night during that library's construction, Jacob, his mom and her partner would go for pizza and then visit bulldozers and cherry pickers and the emerging public building. (As construction manager, Jacobs learned to read blueprints and monitored construction in a hard hat every evening after her office work.)
Sentimental like his mom, Jacob gets teary when describing the opening ceremony: the red brick building, the long porch, the great concrete facade carved with "PUBLIC LIBRARY," his mom up there with the mayor and 10,000 cheering library patrons. "The whole magic of seeing this library built was one of my most notable memories," he says. "It has been my life!"
ONE DAY, about two minutes after I met Deborah Jacobs, she invited me to sit with her on the tiny lollipop-colored chairs in the children's section of the public library. The room was faded, scaled for a nursery-school tea party and dominated by a huge Clifford the Big Red Dog. I asked Jacobs what she saw and felt when she looked around.
Her glance swept the storybooks and stuffed animals, yet surprisingly, her words and tone suggested mountain ranges, sage prairies, ocean crossings - the concept of the American frontier.
"The library is about rugged independence. You can come in as an independent learner and learn anything. It's about you and myriad opportunities. If you think about immigrants coming over, from wherever to Seattle, finding a place that's free and open and available that anybody can use and it's welcoming . . . That's what makes my heart pound. The doors are open. This is where you can grow."
At that moment, it was as if Jacobs had waved a magic wand. The
smelly, dowdy library suddenly seemed awesome. All the knowledge in the universe was accessible through the magnetic swipe strip on my red plastic Q card. I could hunt for answers to questions I hadn't even thought of. I could meet zillions of characters in millions of books. I could gain insight, maybe, into the whys and hows of those rare people in the world, like Jacobs, who seem unbelievably good and unbelievably good at what they do.
In a library, there are two ways to find what you're looking for. The first is to look it up yourself. The second is to ask a librarian. I asked.
Why do you do what you do?
Jacobs answered, "When I was in library school, I used to think if I could help one child as a librarian, I'd forever affect the quality of life for everybody in the universe. I still think that."
Soon, somewhere in one of the 26 new, rebuilt or remodeled libraries in Seattle, a child will discover there's a way to go places he or she never realized existed.
Who knows how this might change the universe for all of us, ever after?
Paula Bock is a staff writer for Pacific Northwest magazine. Michelle Kumata is a Seattle Times news artist.
Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.