March 23, 2018

Corner Office Interview: Gates Foundation’s Deborah Jacobs

Just over two years into her role as Global Libraries director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jacobs reflects on the global library landscape

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U.S. libraries gave the world a top talent when Deborah Jacobs left her transformational role as City Librarian of Seattle in 2008 to head the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program, the international sibling to the U.S. Libraries program.

The initiative fosters national-scale projects with grantees in transitioning countries that have public library systems. The goal is to enable public access to information and communications technology – access that is not only sustainable but also, according to the foundation, ‘useful and used in ways that improve people’s lives and spread the benefits.’

‘We go into countries that have what we call needs and readiness,’ says Jacobs, referring to government interest and an engaged library community. The program is at work in ten countries – Chile, Mexico, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Botswana – and is currently doing research in six more. (She is pictured above with Mario Fernández de la Garza, the general coordinator of the Vasconcelos Program in Mexico.)

Daily, she taps know-how from a successful career in U.S. public libraries large and small, a tenure that included being named LJ‘s Librarian of the Year for 1994. ‘I can talk about advocacy, inspiring people and bringing libraries to life,’ she says, ‘understanding the struggles they’re going through. People say, ‘You really understand,’ and I say, ‘You bet I do. I’ve been doing it for 35 years.’?’

RM: What is similar and dissimilar about libraries here in the United States and the ones with which you are working?

DJ: My biggest interest and surprise when I came to Global Libraries is that in developing and transitioning countries, libraries are just like they are in Seattle or rural Oregon: libraries in Romania, Lithuania, Botswana are facing the same issues we face.

Number one, we’re an aging profession. Number two, our library schools aren’t necessarily teaching us the skills we need to be modern librarians. Number three, most of us weren’t trained to do the jobs we’re doing now. Number four, the young people who are going to library schools are often getting hired by industry, where they can be paid more. Number five, librarians don’t know how to advocate. Number six, we’ve got a whole new way of providing service that we don’t have the funding for. Number seven, our funding is not sufficient. Number eight, people don’t know why we’re relevant in the days of the Internet.

On my first trip, I went to Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania. I was in a very small town – a two-hour boat ride away on the Danube in Romania – and the librarian greeted us at the boat. We had an interpreter with us. Before I knew it, we were talking – me in English, she in Romanian – and we both knew what we were saying.

This was a librarian who, like me, had spent her career advocating, working closely with government, caring about the community, and so our language was the same even though we had no common language. There’s a language of this service that is powerful and that transcends countries.

I was up to number nine? There are spark plugs everywhere; we need to ignite their passion for libraries, whether they’re in rural Romania or New York City. You find those people, and you want to help them be leaders in the cause.

But what about differences?

Truly, you walk into these libraries, and they’re just like what you have. They just might have dirt floors, and there’s no running water. But there are probably libraries in rural parts of our country that don’t have electricity all the time or are using wood stoves. In rural Poland, rural Vietnam, the electricity can go on and off. They have the same problems that transitioning countries have, but nothing that I would say, ‘Whew! That’s different!’

The library associations in some places are strong, and in some places they’re weak. If you look around, state to state in the 50 states of the U.S., there’s no paid staff.

One of the biggest challenges they face is the same thing Jill [Nishi, Deputy Director, U.S. Libraries initiative, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation] is working on: broadband.

How is the foundation approaching sustainability?

What we learned from the U.S. program and then from our early work in Chile and Mexico is that it’s not enough to put technology in libraries.

We’ll go into countries where libraries were given technology through EU funds – there are programs that did that, but nobody taught them how to use it. Nobody made sure that there was permanent broadband, infrastructure, wiring, that got the computers connected to the Internet.

So, as we look at the library environment, we work on a number of things. First is meeting user needs. We train library workers and that includes training on how to train the public. We believe that there need to be compelling public spaces; we don’t fund that, but we look to catalyze it. For instance, computers don’t get installed unless there’s furniture to put them on…unless there’s heat or air-conditioning.

We focus on advocacy, building public support. And, extremely important, we work on measuring impact. From the beginning we do baseline studies, as well as needs assessments. We do follow-ups on the baseline studies. We are doing a lot of work right now with our grantees so people can learn from what’s happening in Romania and Botswana about how advocacy and impact are working together.

So they can adopt those practices more widely.

Exactly. If you know that there’s a high incidence of breast cancer in your community and your government has priorities around it, you not only have databases and nurses with training, but your government knows about it, and you become a real partner.

We also make sure that the library systems and supporting institutions are strong – library associations, library schools.

And, finally, we work on having partners and being a partner. For instance, in Poland, one of largest national telecommunications companies has agreed to bring the last mile wiring and pay for wiring to every public library in Poland, as well as three years of free service. That’s a high-impact partnership. So is one with a local farm collective, so that farmers who need agricultural information find ways to protect their tomatoes from rot. Generally, every library needs that kind of support.

We also work on sustainability from the very beginning because government from the beginning needs to understand the cost to keep this going. We’re only going to be in a country for three to five years, so even before we start the grant agreement we talk about how the local governments will take over the program. Because it isn’t really a program, it needs to be a way of life. Three years from now [sustainability] is going to look like, ‘Is your program using mobile phones? Do you have virtual services available.’

And on what are you spending your time working?

When I visit a country, I tend to do three things. I go to rural libraries to see on the ground, so I’m often on long bus rides or long airplane rides to go to the southern tip of Chile to see the libraries in Punta Arenas.

I meet with government officials at the local, provincial, and national level. But equally important is actually seeing our program live and meeting the staff and seeing their work before, during, and after a program.

Last of all, I meet with the grantee teams with the program officer, listening to them, because they’re really all on their way.

Has your tenure at the Gates Foundation led to a reshaping of your own long-held beliefs about libraries?

In so many ways, it’s a brand new career. I am still working in what makes my heart beat, in libraries, and I’m getting to take my own passion to a whole different kind of level, advocating for the same things, struggling with the same issues – although not like I used to.

Boy, does my world feel like it’s gotten so much bigger. It’s interesting how long it takes me to read the New York Times now – knowing where Kyrgyzstan is and caring about it.

I’m humbled, I’m in awe, I’m lucky. For me, it’s still about making the world a better place through libraries.

And how does it make you feel about libraries?

I believe now is the time for libraries, that if we don’t get it right now, we’re not going to exist. I go into countries where the presidents have goals to make their citizens educated and computer literate. So they create new institutions. And I’ll say to them, ‘You already have an institution.’ But you know what? I used to say that to city councils and mayors in Seattle when they were putting computers in community centers. You’ve got a library a block away that needs more computers.

What do we do to get it right?

We do what those of us who are putting ourselves on the front line are doing. What are most of the presidents of [the American Library Association] talking about? Educating young, energetic people. Advocacy. We’ve got to continue fighting the good fight.

Some would say those advocacy efforts are failing.

It’s the same in the EU right now [as in the United States]. What will it look like in Romania in five years, three years after our program, or two years after our program? I don’t know, but I have a huge belief that we’re going to see lively libraries. So far, we’re seeing terrible economic crisis in some of the countries like Latvia and Lithuania, but the libraries are surviving. Are they getting cutbacks in hours? Yes. But because those programs began a few years ago, people know how important they are, and while some are shutting their doors or reducing hours, the president of Latvia was here last year talking to our president of Global Development, saying, ‘I don’t control a lot of money, but if something’s going to get supported, it needs to be the library.’

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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