Deborah Jacobs on the End of Gates Global Libraries and What Happens Next

As director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative from 2008 until the program came to a close at the end of 2018, Deborah Jacobs was responsible for overseeing the distribution of millions of dollars to libraries in more than 50 countries and the United States. LJ caught up with Jacobs at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in her hometown of Seattle to share a look back—as well as a look forward.

woman in glasses head shot
Deborah Jacobs
Photo by Matt Lawrence Photography

As director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries initiative from 2008 until the program came to a close at the end of 2018, Deborah Jacobs was responsible for overseeing the distribution of millions of dollars to libraries in more than 50 countries and the United States. Before moving to Global Libraries, Jacobs served as Seattle city librarian for 11 years, where she led a capital program that built a new Central Library and 26 renovated, new, or expanded branches. As director of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, OR, Jacobs was named Library Journal Librarian of the Year in 1994.

LJ caught up with Jacobs at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in her hometown of Seattle to share a look back—as well as a look forward.


LJ : How did you go from Seattle City Librarian to Gates Global Libraries?

Deborah Jacobs: [Martha Choe], who was [director of Global Libraries], had been a friend and mentor to me. I had known her when she was on city council, and I sent her an email and said, “Congratulations, Martha,” because she was becoming COO [of the Gates Foundation]. She said, “Hey, I need to talk to you.” So, she called and she said, “We really want to talk to you about the position, and [for you] to think about coming to the foundation.” It was one of those moments where I knew, oh yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I had planned to retire from Seattle Public Library because I had built it up and I loved the staff, I loved the community. I had a great life.

But then I went in and interviewed, and they were looking for people that had global experience. I didn’t have developing country experience, but I had experience in international libraries. I feel very lucky that I was identified.

I remember [LJ editorial director] Rebecca [T. Miller] first interviewed me when I went there. I said something to the effect of, “I used to really be able to whip through The New York Times fast, but now we’re talking about going to Kyrgyzstan. I’ve been in Bulgaria. I know Botswana.” So, the newspaper—and the whole world—opened up to me. The cultures, the people, the experiences, and it was all about public libraries. It was a gift and I took it.

What part of your time with Global Libraries was most notable?

I think the exit was probably the most exciting time. To be given the gift by Bill and Melinda, to be told, “You design how the exit happens, the timeframe, the budget. You can’t make it last for ten years or have twice the budget, but figure it out.” Their only request was to leave the library field strong. And I feel like my biggest success is that the field stood up immediately when that message went out. I feel like people rolled up their sleeves…finding other funders to fund some of the [work] they were doing, whether it’s in Kenya or Colombia.

What was the most surprising part?

The first countries I visited were all Eastern European, my second week on the job. I went to Poland, Bulgaria, Romania. The most surprising part is that [the librarians] were just like me. They were primarily women. They were idealistic. They believed in the power of information. They wore big earrings. They had glasses. I mean, we all look alike around the world. And that was surprising to me.

And on that trip was possibly one of the more interesting things that happened to me. It was at the mouth of the Danube in Romania, and we had to take a boat there—it was sloshing around and my pants were rolled up and we were late—and the librarian from that community who had received computers was waiting to greet us. I don’t speak any Romanian, she barely understood English. We had the interpreters close to us, but we were walking fast because the mayor was waiting. She told me this whole story in Romanian and I was responding in English, and the interpreters are like—“They’re actually talking to each other!” It gets back to that universality. This was a woman I would call a sparkplug, who did the same kinds of things I did when I was leading libraries, who knew how to work politics, who knew what to do with the mayor to get the mayor to do things.

What areas or gaps do you feel are the most in need of library leaders’ attention right now?

Bringing up that young generation of librarians. That’s a huge gap everywhere in the world. In Africa, on the continent, is where we focused some of our last energies, and there were a lot of people my age—60, 70—and then a few in their 50s and then the young ones. The gap was there pretty much everywhere. So how do we lift people up? I think IFLA’s [International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions] global vision—that’s one of the top challenges —is to give them experience, give them opportunities, because we need them to be uplifted.

We need to be able to tell our story. Everybody talks about advocacy, but you can’t advocate without real data, and numbers just don’t count anymore. It’s like oh, good, the circulation has gone up ten percent or whatever. The door count, this many programs. PLA [Public Library Association] is doing a great job with Project Outcome—of course we need to advocate, but let’s pick up the obvious tool, and it’s not the door count at the library.

I think libraries have to be better at looking for multiple funders. The key funder everywhere is the local government. Occasionally it comes from the country, the top, but really learn to bring in other people. Just like volunteers—volunteer funders.

How do you see each Global Libraries’ legacy partners—PLA, IFLA, and the Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington’s Information School (TASCHA)—moving its work forward?

We didn’t fund them to do anything other than the work they had already been doing. TASHA does research, and the field needed actionable research. They were doing some innovative work, working with multilaterals to collaborate on programs, to bring the library to the table. IFLA has a big role. They’re doing work on impact measurement, they’re doing work on young leadership, they’re doing work on trying to bring the library community together. The premise of it is, in order to be highly respected, to be seen as the cornerstones of democracy, we need to work together. And it’s as true in the U.S. as it is anywhere else.

PLA also is going to continue doing the types of work that they do, also with a focus on young leaders and Project Outcome. PLA has a lot of resources that can be packaged to help people around the world. Right now in the Pacific Islands region they’re forming a library association, and are reaching out to PLA for different curricula and things that PLA has done.

[The legacy partners] are going to work out how they work together. Right now they’re trying to find their own ways, and all three of them are committed to long-term sustainability of the [legacy] funding. But it’s not just the three of them. I mean, there are so many organizations that have stepped up and that are doing work, and they’re all reaching out to each other. One of the things [Global Libraries] did was we were a great networker, especially when the U.S. came back into our portfolio in 2012. It really spanned the world then, and people know that one of the big gaps in us not being there is that convening power. So they’re working to do that more themselves.

What is your vision of how the Global Libraries’ legacy will look in another ten years?

I’d like to be able to have libraries look like we talk about them. I think the number one recommendation from the Aspen report [Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries] is to align library services with community needs—really getting to the core of what the community’s issues are and being willing to adapt and change your services. That will make a difference.

Now I just want to be able to download a book on my Kindle. But if I’m going back to Kenya—which I don’t expect to do—or to Uganda, or wherever, and I see young people not sitting behind a desk but engaging, that would be really great.

And I think also if people are working together—Indonesia and India [have] huge populations, huge numbers of libraries, but aren’t really involved internationally with other people, and I’d love to see [their] membership in IFLA rise.

If a big funder were stepping into the field right now, what would you want to see it concentrate on?

One of the things we learned as we exited the library field are things that we wish we had done more of earlier. For instance, only fund with cofunding. Lots of small projects get funded that way: “If your city will put in, or if you get another funder to put in…” Have them come when they apply with a funder in hand. I would really look to multiple partners and getting that commitment up front.

Along with that, build a sustainability plan from the beginning. How is this work going to continue, so it’s not just a project, but it’s a change in the way libraries act? I would love if there were another funder, but I think if the library field starts to work together and think about what they need, the funders will come.

I would love to see politicians taking more accountability. The president of Colombia was one of my favorite examples of my work here in Global Libraries because he was just elected president when I had the opportunity to meet with him. And the new president said at the launch of our grant—and he had only been president about eight months then—“The children of peace will be born with computers and books in their hands, not guns, and they’re going to be doing that because of the library.” He made the library in Colombia a huge part of his peace initiative. And to me, more politicians need to be doing that, seeing libraries just not as a nice place, but as a place where you can make communities different.

What’s next for you?

At the moment, I don’t want to be speaking or [serve on] new boards. I’ve got a lot of books on reserve. I want to take the time to see my mom and my dad. My wife and I both have living parents in their late eighties, and we’re very lucky, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t seen people. I picked up the phone and called [my mother] two days ago, and she’s always—because I don’t like talking on the phone—surprised when I call, like, “What’s wrong?” So we just talked, and I was thinking, oh my God, it’s a gift. This is a gift to be able to be a daughter, a wife, a friend.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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Folasade Adepoju

You have left your footprints on the sand of time. When the history of Libraries in Africa are written, your name will be written in GOLD. Well done.

Posted : Feb 22, 2019 10:33


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