San José’s Jill Bourne, LJ’s Librarian of the Year 2017, has accomplished so much in her career as her roles (and her innovation within them) grew, from time in Seattle through San Francisco and in 2013 to the San José Public Library (SJPL) as city librarian. There she has turned an anemic system into a vital, valued, and expanding city resource. If that were not remarkable enough, even more exciting is all that lies ahead for Bourne—and points the way for the rest of the profession.
LJ’s Librarian of the Year award, created in 1988, has always been about celebrating a leader who has worked some kind of particular practical magic to achieve the remarkable, establishing a model for others to follow. It has also often been about promise: inherently urging the identified leaders to expand the influence and impact of libraries. We have a saying about this: “once a Librarian of the Year, always a Librarian of the Year.” We have not been disappointed.
Case in point: last month, at the LJ Directors Summit, Sacramento Public Library’s Rivkah Sass, named 2006 LJ Librarian of the Year when she was at the helm in Omaha, epitomized ongoing dynamism. She tapped into her broad network to bring forward thought leaders on sustainability and contributed her creativity to the program scope—including having Klean Kanteen CEO Jim Osgood talk about socially responsible corporations and the imperative of mission-driven work. Sass’s high-energy engagement—which emanates from the library into the city, region, and beyond—is exhilarating and highly valuable.
Also present at the summit was Bourne, whom I had invited to speak about sustainability approaches at SJPL well before she was nominated for the award. We were able to start quietly sharing the news about Bourne’s win there and enjoy a rare opportunity to catch Sass and Bourne together (pictured here with me during downtime).
Bourne’s tenure in Seattle during a vibrant time of growth taught her about the mechanics of engagement. “I learned the value of bringing people along,” she told LJ’s John Berry. “I had to help people learn new models of service, and often they were people who were senior to me. The experience taught me things that touched the heart of librarianship.”
It also taught her to strive for more for the library, a mind-set spurred by a culture of innovation. “We all felt we were on the cutting edge,” she said. “That is where I learned how to seek growth and change.”
Now, Bourne is expanding the reach of the library even further, as head of San José’s Education and Digital Literacy Initiative. While still in its early days, this role puts her at the heart of the city’s development of an aspirational goal to deliver on the concept of the “city as a classroom.” Who better to be at the center of such an enterprise than a strong librarian?
This role is a boon for San José, but it also embodies the potential for a library-first point of view to inform and speed ambitious civic solutions. The public library is the only agency that aims to serve the whole community. Approaching broad-based problems with a skilled librarian as partnership-builder could well mean that a nonsiloed vision will emerge—one that puts people first. As LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz puts it, “Libraries don’t have to start from scratch creating a constructive conversation. The library is already the roundtable and the convener that calls everyone to that table.”
In a sense, Bourne’s expansive, and no doubt challenging, position reflects the position of libraries themselves. We have accomplished so much, but there is opportunity to attain even more—to help achieve what libraries alone can’t do—by being a focusing force for the broader community. Pressure, yes, but with vast promise.