Politics

Deborah L. Jacobs: Master Listener

Building libraries by consensus
by | November 2001

When Rem Koolhaas was chosen two years ago to design Seattle's new Central Library, not everybody was happy with the avant-garde Dutch architect or his asymmetrical glass-and-steel design. But nobody complained about the selection process. For months, City Librarian Deborah L. Jacobs had solicited public comments, held open houses and conducted workshops with 11 library user groups and 37 library staff groups, all of whom were invited to make lists of recommendations.

That was vintage Jacobs. The 49-year-old librarian has established a reputation for consensus building and what she calls "open-hearted" listening. In her previous position, in Corvallis, Oregon, Jacobs earned consistent accolades for connecting with the community. In 1994, she was named Librarian of the Year by Library Journal.

That same year, in Seattle, voters rejected a $155 million bond measure to overhaul the city's library system. Following the defeat, the library's director resigned under pressure. "There was a lot of anger and dissension among citizens, library staff and political leaders," Jacobs says of the situation she was tapped to remedy in 1997. "The first priority was to pull people together."

Jacobs met with newly elected Mayor Paul Schell and garnered his support for putting a reconstructed bond measure on the 1998 ballot. She also visited every neighborhood in the city, attending more than 100 community meetings in three months. What Jacobs learned was that citizens felt the original proposal had placed too much emphasis on the downtown library at the expense of the 22 neighborhood branches.

So a $196.4 million "Libraries for All" bond proposal was crafted that nearly doubled the amount dedicated to branch libraries. At the time, it was the largest single tax measure for libraries in U.S. history. It passed handily, and much of the credit went to Jacobs. "She pushed hard," Schell says. "She's a very charismatic person who took the lead in selling it to the city council and the public."

Betty Jane Narver, a member of the library board and a public policy scholar at the University of Washington, calls what Jacobs did "a heroic effort to make sure that voters felt like the plan put before them was theirs... In the first year, I don't think she took a day off."

Jacobs remembered to talk to some movers and shakers as well. Sipping lemonade at the kitchen table of William H. Gates Sr. in 1998, she was asked how much money the library wanted from his son, the Microsoft billionaire. Jacobs blurted out "$20 million"--and wound up getting it. Last year, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen added $20 million to the $2.5 million he had donated earlier.

In addition to relocating the Central Library temporarily so the site can be cleared for Koolhaas' building, Jacobs has spent much of this year working on a ground-breaking labor-management partnership agreement that gives library staff a representative on virtually every decision-making committee. "We didn't quite know what to make of it at first," says Eric Cisney, president of AFSCME Local 2083, which represents about 400 library system employees. "But Deborah's really sincere. When it comes to collaboration and communication, things have changed 180 degrees."

Jacobs is both unabashedly sentimental and unbelievably savvy. Her political and administrative skills are widely admired. "It's very rare," says Narver, "to find a real leader who also understands the management function. Someday she may run for political office. When the central library is finished, people will be watching to see what she'll do."

Jacobs doesn't discourage such speculation. "Yeah, I might like to be mayor or city manager or a senator," she admits. Still, "libraries are the most empowering and democratic institutions. To be able to practice my politics and serve the public in this setting is thrilling."

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Anne Jordan  |  Former Editor
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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