Seattle's next chief librarian to be named
As soon as today, a selection committee will name one of three finalists as Seattle's new city librarian to replace Deborah Jacobs, who left to join the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Current job: Library director, San Jose Public Library, 1997 to present.
Education: Master's degree in library science, University of California, Berkeley; bachelor of arts, California State University, Sacramento.
Current job: State librarian, California State Library, 2004 to present.
Education: Master's degree in business administration, Rutgers University; master's degree in library science, State University of New York; bachelor of arts, Syracuse University.
Three finalists for city's top library jobRivkah Sass
Current job: Executive director, Omaha Public Library, 2003 to present. Sass started her career in 1978 as a children's librarian in Spokane.
Education: Master's degree in library science, University of Washington; bachelor's degree in political science, California State College, Sonoma.
Seattle's next chief librarian will take over a system riding a wave of public confidence, with 26 new and remodeled branch libraries and a glistening main library downtown.
The challenge, of course, will be to keep that popularity going as public budgets falter and technology continues to move libraries beyond books on shelves.
A selection committee will recommend one of three finalists to the post as early as today. They are Susan Hildreth, the California state librarian; Jane Light, who heads the San Jose Public Library; and Rivkah Sass, director of the Omaha Public Library. The previous Seattle city librarian, Deborah Jacobs, left in July to take a job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
"It's such a strong pool of finalists — very experienced but also creative," said Eric Liu, president of the Seattle Public Library board of trustees. "They are people who know their library lingo cold, but also know how to relate with different parts of the community. I think they all appreciate the magnitude of the opportunity here."
The city librarian is the system's CEO, overseeing a staff of 710 and managing a budget of more than $50 million. Jacobs made $178,000 annually.
Whoever is chosen will write a new strategic plan and follow in the footsteps of a popular and accomplished predecessor.
When Jacobs took over in 1997, the library system was in political turmoil — the previous librarian had left after a dispute with the mayor. A bond issue had failed three years earlier, and some were questioning the role of the library in a growing information age.
Under Jacobs, voters decisively passed a $196 million bond measure to build a new downtown library and upgrade or build 26 branches. The final branch opened this summer, completing the building program on time and on budget.
Circulation of books and materials has almost doubled since 1998. About 11.6 million people visited Seattle's libraries last year, up from 4.5 million in 2000.
When Jacobs was hired a decade ago, she and two other finalists made public presentations. The candidates in town last week met with the selection committee, library staff and city officials, but not the public.
The board sought public input before it had job candidates, Liu said, and heard lots of comments about what traits people wanted in a new librarian. But when it came to picking a person, Liu said the board felt the public was confident library leaders could do a good job.
"It's a hiring decision, and it's the board of trustees' job by state law," said Linda Larson, a member of the hiring committee and a former trustee. She helped hire Jacobs from the rural Corvallis, Ore., system more than a decade ago.
It's not known when the board will name the new librarian.
The three finalists all say making the most of the public's investment in the buildings by adding and improving programs would be a priority.
Ironically, said Hildreth, the public needs the library most when the economy slumps — the same time that library budgets often face cuts. In California, she's faced budget cuts and she said libraries there have learned to be more "nimble" and "entrepreneurial."
"With a budget reduction, you'd have to make sure you're handling all your processes as efficiently as possible," she said.
When Sass took over Omaha's library, she faced a flat budget and a system in need of more resources. To find them, she cleared out old bookshelves and computer equipment, broken furniture and other junk and was able to reduce the four-floor main library to three floors. She moved executive offices onto the vacant floor and saved enough to keep the library open seven days a week instead of six.
"I've kind of done some out-there things, just because we had to do them," she said.
Voters in San Jose passed a bond measure in 2000 to pay for new libraries, and Light helped get a new source of revenue through a parcel tax. When the city and the local university were each raising money for a new main library, she led an effort to combine them. That saved both institutions money and brought students and community members together.
"I'm known within the city as an innovator," Light said.
With Seattle's online "virtual library" growing in popularity — it's expected to have 6 million users by the end of this year — the new city librarian will have to keep pace with burgeoning technology.
Hildreth mentioned interactive additions, such as private accounts where people can summarize books they've read and offer ratings. Some libraries have even opened up their catalogs for public input, she said.
Sass said more technology needs to be adapted for libraries' use. People carry mobile computers instead of cellphones, and libraries should be reaching out to that new technology.
Light said she thought the new librarian should not expect people to go to the library's Web site for services. She'd like to move toward RSS feeds (a way of publishing frequently updated online material) and other ways the library can "get into their space" to recommend books and services.
"Seattle is one of the places in the country ... where I think the community and the library are ready to explore the question of what should a library be in its community in the second decade of the new century," she said.
With a city as well-read as Seattle and 27 technologically equipped libraries, the library system is ripe for someone's creative direction, Liu said, but the board isn't looking for another Jacobs.
"It seems different times call for different kinds of leaders. The city librarian really has a chance to help us evolve and imagine."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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