February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 1994: Deborah Jacobs

“She may not admit it, but Deborah is one hell of a politician!”

Things were in tough shape at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, OR, when Deborah Jacobs was appointed director in March 1988. The city had hired HBW Associates to develop a Master Plan to bring the library up to par. In the half-dozen years since, Jacobs and the library staff, with a huge assist from voters and volunteers and staunch support from city and county officials, have taken action on the entire 20-year plan. As George Bell, chair of the Oregon State Library Board of Trustees, put it in his letter nominating Jacobs to be L/1994 Librarian of the Year, “Jacobs has taken a mediocre operation and made it into one of the best in Oregon, with the highest per capita funding in the state.”

A litany of achievement

What kind of achievements made Jacobs the obvious choice of both the LJ editors and the Oregon Library Association (OLA) as 1994 Librarian of the Year? A partial list makes the case: She implemented the Master Plan–which was supposed to provide a 20-year agenda–in five years. She increased funding of the book budget to nearly 20 percent of the library’s revenue, doubling the allocation without new money in the first year. She built a strong, full-time, professional staff, replacing many part-time, hourly employees, and instilled in them a new attitude and emphasis on customer service that brought about the first increases in circulation and reference use of the library in 15 years. She led a campaign that used some 900 volunteers to gain the approval of 70 percent of the voters to issue bonds to finance a $6.85 million rebuilding of the main library.

Jacobs is proud that all $6.85 million for the project was funded by public bonds. When the question came up of raising private money for the building, the mayor was emphatic. “We don’t ask people to give money for police buildings!” he said.

We expect to have to fight

During all of this Jacobs was deeply involved in professional issues throughout Oregon. Elected president of OLA in 1992, she was thrust to the forefront of the battle against an apparently popular, anti-gay rights ballot measure that would have banned libraries from holding or purchasing materials about homosexuality or written by gay or lesbian authors.

When reporters asked one of Proposition 9’s primary supporters why the measure failed, he replied, “We should never have gone after the books.” The American Library Association said the Oregon campaign was the best intellectual freedom effort in the nation, and the Oregon Civil Liberties Union gave its top award to “the librarians of Oregon.”

“The battle over Proposition 9 was a very important event for Oregon and Oregon librarians,” Jacobs reflected. “The Oregon Citizens Alliance, our adversaries in the struggle, are pretty frightening. We at OLA all agreed that it was and still is a library issue. The proponents were saying no government funds could be used to promote homosexuality. While we could oppose it on many grounds, we thought we’d be most effective if we opposed it on library grounds. We interpreted the proposition’s ‘No endorsement or promotion of homosexuality’ to mean books, and they did come after books. We capitalized on that.”

Jacobs and her 12-year-old son suffered some personal abuse over the campaign. There were death threats on their answering machine. Gay and lesbian materials in the library were trashed. Jacobs, her partner, Karyle Butcher, associate university librarian for public services at Oregon State University in Corvallis, and her son are a family unit. She asserts that she is not a single parent. “We discovered that people think that they don’t know anyone involved in different ways of living. If we don’t admit that we live together, they won’t know it,” Jacobs said.

“We had an election again this year,” Jacobs reported. “There was a similarly intended but toned-down antigay measure and it lost, too, but we expect to have to fight this continuously.”

Legislation, stable funding

As OLA president, Jacobs also led the effort to pass OLA’s ambitious legislative program. The key measure, Senate Bill 20, met the long-term goal of Oregon librarians for statewide resource sharing. That bill passed, along with nearly every other measure in the librarians’ package. Every library in Oregon benefits from the most successful legislative session in Oregon library history.

As if all of that were not enough, Jacobs began studies to find a long-term solution to her library’s chronic funding problems. After a tough campaign, in which a very complex tax measure had to be spelled out to skeptical voters, 60 percent of voters approved a new, permanent library service district for Benton County and Corvallis. That measure passed in the quirky political climate of 1994. It empowers thelibrary to get solid, stable support from taxes on citizens of both Benton County and the city of Corvallis.

The Jacobs style

This litany of achievement and straggle, which is the stuff of awards, does little to help us know and understand the personality and style of Deborah Jacobs. You might expect an opinionated, outspoken, high-profile orator–a militant politician. Not so.

The first thing you realize about Jacobs is that she is open and honest to an almost disarming degree, but she’s not a publicity seeker. Trustee George Bell calls it “warmth, intelligence, gentle humor, and soft-spoken leadership.”

Lee Brawner, the “B” in HBW who coauthored the Master Plan and who is director of the Metropolitan Library System in Oklahoma County, is more specific. “Deborah is like a quiet dynamo with vision,” he says. “She’s not intrusive, but she has that ability always to be looking ahead, always asking ‘What if?’ She is quick to say I don’t understand that, tell me, how does it work, will it fit here?

“Deborah takes it all in,” Brawner continued, “then comes back at your next meeting and makes you realize as you talk that she has digested everything and moved on to another dimension with it.

“It is remarkable,” Brawner concluded, “but she won’t be standing on a table with these achievements; she stays behind it all, having a key hand in the strategy. Jacobs has accomplished everything with minimal resources. She would deny it, but Deborah is a hell of a politician.”

Jacobs is also an active community volunteer in what she calls her “spare time.” For three years she has been chair of the Benton County Commission on Children and Families. The commission’s “Yes for Kids” program is trying to transform the way the community looks at and provides services for kids and families. These include, but go beyond, food, shelter, and education to emphasize adequate childcare. The program has raised funds for a “Schools Out” project. During school holidays, parents drop off kids for diverse activities and go on to work in full confidence that their children are not only well cared for but doing useful and interesting things.

Many mentors

Jacobs, who was born in Los Angeles and educated at Mills College, an elite school for women in the Bay Area (“Some of us were on scholarship!”), had wanted to be an attorney. At Mills she “ran out of literature courses to take,” finally finding one in children’s literature. On that “epic day” Jacobs changed her career aspiration, went to work in the college library, and decided to become a librarian. The librarians at Mills, particularly Diana Thomas, were influential in strengthening her drive toward that goal. “I still think back to that day at Mills,” Jacobs told LJ, adding, “I just love being a librarian.

“Library school was a joy to me,” said Jacobs, who took her library degree at the School of Library Science at the University of Oregon in Eugene, one of the earliest schools to close even before the beginning of the unfortunate trend of closings. She was deeply influenced by Library Media Specialist and teacher Paulette Thompson, whose view was that librarians should give children “beautiful, wonderful things.”

She was hired for her first job, as a children’s librarian at the Deschutes County Library in Bend, OR, by Director Dick Tuffli, one of Jacobs’s many influential mentors. Tuffli actually advised her to move on after just two years there. “You’ve done two summer reading programs, you’re a great children’s librarian, now you have to get going,” he counseled. “Go become a director, you really need to get into management.”

Jacobs became a “manager” at the Sacramento City-County Public Library in California. With a staff of eight she selected materials and scheduled, maintained, and operated four mobile library units, providing all kinds of outreach service, including visits to detention centers and jails. When California’s infamous tax-cutters passed their Proposition 13, she began to look for other work.

In 1978 she joined the staff of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library as extension services/reference librarian. With 14 staff and $350,000 a year she began to improve the quality of collections and services at the branches and through bookmobiles.

A miserable reorganization

Nine years later, in 1987, she was named library services manager during what she calls “a miserable reorganization” of city government that put me library in with parks and recreation. The community was opposed to the new set up. “People who loved the library were very cranky,” Jacobs reported. Ultimately, the city manager and the library director were removed. HBW Consultants, particularly Brawner and his teammate Dick Waters, were called in to write the library’s Master Plan for the city. In the middle of all that Jacobs was named director.

“The Mayor, Council, and everyone in town took the Master Plan very seriously. . . . It gave people something to hold on to, to check against,” Jacobs asserted. “It created a library agenda and yardstick for the Mayor.” She is now ready to develop a new plan, using the community and library staff.

Waters and Brawner took Jacobs to dinner the night she was named director. It was a “one-two punch,” Jacobs remembered. “This library is in terrible shape,” the two chimed. “You are going to have to work harder than you ever have.”

“They were right!” said Jacobs. The library was restored as a separate city department and, through Jacobs’s leadership, now operates as its own library district. Of the 72,900 county residents served by thatlibrary, 45,000 live within the city limits of Corvallis. What’s Corvallis like? “It is the perfect place to live,” according to Jacobs. “It is beautiful, Oregon State University is here, most members of our board are current or retired faculty. There is a level of cultural passion, a commitment to education here that you don’t find everywhere.”

The political lessons

How do you convince voters to issue nearly $7 million in bonds to rebuild a library? “The key is showing voters the need, but most important is involving the whole community. We tried to make them all owners,” Jacobs said. “Citizens know how to govern here, anyway. We asked them: ‘What do you want in your new library?’ They told us.”

The library is “making them owners” continuously. It handles “with great care” some 150 volunteers a week. Those who help shelve books “own” their shelves and come in and put them in order on their own. Volunteers conduct some story times and help with the library’s annual sleep over for kids. “It’s a crazy night without parents,” Jacobs reported. Volunteers serve on four different citizen boards the librarymaintains and operate a volunteer information desk to welcome new people to Corvallis and the library.

“People care about our book budget, too. Books for the library are the only thing for which voters will vote to pay more. In the first year of our Master Plan we doubled our book budget,” said Jacobs, returning to politics. In a local survey, 96 percent of the citizens gave the library an excellent or good rating. In February 1992, when they dedicated the new building, “it was a rainy miserable day,” and Jacobsexpected only a few hundred to come to the event. More than 10,000 people showed up. A local newspaper proudly asserted that “A community is judged by its library.

Now real estate agents show the library to prospective home buyers. All four candidates for the state legislature from the two districts served by it wanted an association with the library, and they were all photographed on the library porch.

While explaining the need for a special library district to stabilize the library’s funding was more difficult, Jacobs used the same methods that worked for the building vote. “Of course you have to try to be smart politicians and target your yes votes. We knew certain people and groups opposed us. We talked to them. We felt if they had the facts they were at least making informed votes. Some were convinced.”

Jacobs believes in hiding nothing from voters and citizens. She rejected advice from some that she should seek voter approval at times when low turnout was expected. “I think you should go all out at peak times, never run a low-key campaign,” she said.

“We got tougher”

While the librarian opposition to Proposition 9 caused some concern, Jacobs and other librarians used the occasion to make a larger point. Jacobs took the message to other constituencies. “It actually helped us build collections,” Jacobs said. “We could show we had something for everyone. I just spoke to fundamentalist ministers. They were thrilled that after they gave us book lists, we were able to come back and report that we already owned most of the items listed. They weren’t giving us tracts, they just wanted good Christian literature.

“We got tougher,” said Jacobs, describing the Proposition 9 campaign and the very effective year OLA had with the Oregon legislature. “We have always said we need to get political. This campaign made us do it. We had a phenomenal session of the legislature. This election helped us become the pugilists all librarians need to be.”

Asked to add anything she wanted to this story, Jacobs said, “I really feel lucky being a public librarian. I have never wanted to work in any other kind of library.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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