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Special Issue | Deborah Jacobs is no ordinary librarian, and her Seattle masterpiece is no ordinary library

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

SEATTLE- Massive concrete pillars jut up diagonally in various directions from the bamboo floor of a 10,000-square-foot children's zone at Seattle's Central Library. Walls of lipstick pink, lime green, and sunflower yellow contrast those stark beams with a playful backdrop to an asymmetrical maze of thousands of shelved books.

In the center of it all stands city librarian Deborah Jacobs, a 55-year-old kid in a book-lover's candy shop. An hour before doors open on this overcast Friday morning, she wanders through the empty area pointing out a story-time reading room and banks of child-friendly computers. "This is the biggest children's room in the country," she says proudly. "It's a magnet for kids from throughout the city."

In a decade on the job in Seattle, Jacobs has built the nation's most magnetic public library for people of all ages. The impressive children's space fills only one first-floor wing of the artistically daring, 11-level building. Similarly, this award-winning librarian's infectious, child-like enthusiasm represents merely one layer of her bold and politically gifted personality.

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In 1997, Jacobs inherited an outdated library system and a public that had voted down funding measures to fix it. Neighborhood by neighborhood, she set out to change minds. Under the banner of "Libraries for All," she packed her nights with public forums to convince the city's diverse local communities that strong and functional libraries are central to civic health. In less than a year, her impassioned vision and straightforward talk guided a $196 million bond levy to an overwhelming 69 percent voter approval mark.

David Brewster, a longtime Seattle journalist and civic observer, believes the campaign's equal emphasis on rebuilding and renovating neighborhood branches proved critical to its success. "A lot of efforts to build a new library had come to nothing before Deborah came to town," he said. "This wasn't just a downtown project. She inspired a sense that the whole community was participating. There are very few people in town that could pull that off."

A day after the election, with no time to catch her breath, Jacobs fielded a continuous stream of calls from invigorated donors and neighborhood branch librarians eager to break ground. Such momentum helped push the pot of private funds to $48 million. The city was ready to build.

Jacobs has had few moments of rest since, though much of her work turned to pleasure when the Central Library opened in May 2004. She has conducted hundreds of building tours, delighting reporters, politicians, librarians, and architects with every intentioned detail of a crowning achievement.

On this morning, Jacobs turns from the children's space and makes her way to the building's third floor, the clicks of her heeled boots echoing off imposing walls of angled glass and exposed concrete. She takes a seat on a large metal planter box brimming with exotic foliage. The library's outer lattice of structural steel and diamond-shaped windows towers behind her, soaking the massive foyer's nine-story atrium with natural light and cityscape views.

In less than an hour, the room's stylish couches and chairs will fill with people, some stopping in for a quick coffee or glance at the newspaper, others to warm their bones after a cold, wet night on the streets. Jacobs believes such town-square-like mixing of class, age, and ethnicity is a critical part of a library's import. "It's about community building," she says. "In today's world, it can be so alienating to spend all your time working on a computer, and then the only places to be with people are retail places, Starbucks or a shopping mall. What about a library?"

But can such sociological benefits truly justify $290 million in mostly public money for citywide libraries, $169 million of which poured into a risky architectural experiment? Jacobs has no doubt: "I hold the public trust by being responsible with their money. I am a fiscal conservative," she says, seemingly unaware of the reaction such a claim might invoke from many advocates for limited government.

To Jacobs, libraries are more than functional buildings; they are monuments to the values of education and democracy. "They are a symbol for the community that we're investing in our children and investing in our immigrants and refugees," she says, boarding one of the structure's many chartreuse green escalators for a ride up to floor five.

Jacobs boasts of more measurable community benefits, too. As she steps off the escalator onto a floor of checkered stainless steel, she points toward a field of 148 computer stations. Such access to technology helps attract 2 million visitors per year through the Central Library doors. And circulation has increased 60 percent from checkout levels in the old facility.

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