Deborah Jacobs keynotes 2015 iSchool Convocation

Deborah Jacobs, the 2015 keynote speaker for the Information School Convocation, is the director of Global Libraries, Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Her remarks follow:

"Thank you for the introduction, Dean Bruce, and thank you for the honor to be your speaker today, allowing me to share this incredibly joyous occasion with all of you, your families and friends. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me.

This is my second time addressing a graduating class of the school. The first was June 1998 when I was director of The Seattle Public Library prior to Dean Emeritus Eisenberg starting. 

You all know the history.  Thanks to Mike, the school transformed seemingly overnight.  Not everyone was happy with the changes. But, thanks to Mike’s vision, tenacity and absolute strength in taking the risks needed to overhaul the “library school” into our iSchool, his is a history to be admired.  And I do.  Although not an alum, the iSchool is MY school.

But the iSchool isn’t the only thing that’s changed, the world has changed in stunning ways.

In preparing for today, I Iooked at my comments from seventeen years ago and started to think about what has changed and what has stayed the same.

The world of information has changed dramatically.

In 1998 approximately only 30% of the libraries in the US were connected to the Internet.  Even at The Seattle Public Library, we were just getting graphical interface and all of us worried about having sufficient wiring and even furniture to put the computers on.

Of course, you, the graduates, with your wisdom AND amazing education know better than anyone that online information and access points have exploded.

As I have seen in the past seventeen years, access to information grows more and more essential to living a productive and healthy life.

I strongly believe there is NO TIME better than NOW to be part of the library and information sciences. Right now – people desperately need not just information and technology, but skilled navigators and leaders and there is nobody better suited than you to do this work. 

Today you are graduating from a school that helped you build the skills you need to THRIVE and LEAD in the digital age.

I can tell you that this has been a great investment of your time and money, [address audience], or your time and money.  

So now that you graduating with the ability to lead in the Digital Age, what is your responsibility?

First, a bit of my background so you know where I am coming from, as I share my advice.

I grew up during the 1950’s, a time when my young mother became very politically engaged. I was born when she was 18 and she raised me with the values and the belief that each day I should work toward making the world a more equal place, for all. 

My mother didn’t have the opportunity for much formal education herself, but she was firm, her first born would go to college. Throughout my life she took me to political rallies, campaign headquarters to stuff envelopes, and to her volunteer job at Head Start, which continues to be one of the longest-running programs attempting to address the effects of systemic poverty in the United States. 

In college it came together. I realized if I truly wanted to serve people and build community, it should be through public libraries.  I instinctually knew then what I have come to say all over the world to people like you – there is nothing is more revolutionary than being a librarian.

Wearing my hat as a fighter for social justice, I believe you have a responsibility, and even an obligation, to use the skills you have gathered here, for social good, using access to information to fight inequity in all forms.

The degrees you are all getting aren’t about the jobs you get or the profession you enter, but about how you use this gift, to change the world through access to information.

With the hope that you will live your values through your work and use your knowledge for the public good, I have three thoughts to share with you that I hope will make you better leaders in the Digital Age.


Always realize the ripple effect you can have and the impact you can make globally.

My values haven’t changed in the last seventeen years.

What has changed for me is my understanding of how large the world is and an understanding of the role I play in it.

It’s much easier for me to see this now that I have been director of the Gates Foundation’s global libraries program. But while I was at the Seattle Public Library, even though I was unaware of it, I was having a global impact.

As I’ve traveled around the world, people have approached me to tell me that the construction of Seattle’s downtown library became a vision for libraries in their countries.

Librarians from Poland to Indonesia have shared their success stories in making bolder, riskier choices in both building design and interaction with public officials, inspired by our work in Seattle. The risks we took in Seattle have rippled out and have given others strength. This makes me proud.


To be the best leader, always act as a mentor. Equally important, always be humble and open to being mentored yourself.

I’ve been lucky enough to have people reach out and care for me throughout my forty year career. 

Who I am, what I’ve done is due to their advice and learnings. I know this has made me a better person and leader along the way. Many of the people on the stage are among my mentors.

And it’s all circular. In my career I have now seen people and students who I have been a mentor to, have now turned the table and are my mentors, helping me navigate in my new global village.  


The last, and the most important lesson – always be bold and take risks.

The best leaders take risks, and are even willing to fail. They understand that failure isn’t the end of the world.  In fact, I have heard from many people that failure often teaches them more than success. This has certainly been the case for me.

In my tenure as the city librarian in both Corvallis, Oregon and here in Seattle, I have continually tried to diversify book collections. In Oregon in 1994, I and other librarians in the state, faced a ballot measure prohibiting government expenditures that might “endorse or promote homosexuality.”  We took the risk and fought this measure hard.

Despite the accolades we received as freedom fighters, we also received serious personal threats from those who disagreed, including a bomb threat that came to my home – but I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

In Seattle, not expecting it was risky, we expanded our services to immigrants and refugees.   Even here, I was verbally attacked more than once by people complaining about using government funds to serve people who don’t speak English. Two of my library colleagues in other cities quit or lost their jobs over diversifying their collections with books in Spanish.

While being revolutionary isn’t always necessary, you need to be willing to be bold.

Being bold, means sticking by what you believe, whether it’s following a practical approach to solving a problem or thinking outside the box. Either way, it means following your own instinct regardless of the circumstance.

So with these three thoughts:

  • thinking about your impact at a global level,
  • always acting as both a mentor and mentee,
  • and always being bold and willing to take risks

I urge you be a leader in your own life. However you plan to use your degree, follow your values. 

For me, my life has been about using these lessons to fight inequity. In my work at the foundation, I have seen women in other countries like Botswana and Nepal who, like my mother, lack a formal education, better themselves and the lives of their families through information they got at public libraries.

This has been my life’s work.

I hope you find your own calling and are able to live your values through whatever work you do.

Thank you and CONGRATULATIONS!" 

About Deborah Jacobs

Deborah Jacobs, director of the Global Libraries initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, oversees the foundation’s work to improve the lives of 1 billion “information-poor” people by 2030 while positioning the world’s 320,000 public libraries as critical community assets and providers of information through relevant technologies.

Global Libraries works to support the transformation of libraries and expand their role as engines of development in partnership with governments and other public and private funders to expand technology access in public libraries, foster innovation in libraries, train library leaders, and advocate for policy changes that benefit public libraries.  Jacobs and the team have worked in seventeen countries throughout the world including recent efforts in Colombia, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa.

Prior to joining the foundation in 2008, she served as Seattle City Librarian for 11 years. In addition to directing the Seattle Public Library system, Jacobs led a $291 million capital-improvement program called “Libraries for All” that funded the construction of a new Central Library and renovated, built, or expanded 26 branch libraries. Over her tenure as Seattle City Librarian, the library moved forward in many areas including her priority areas of strengthening services to immigrants and refugees, early childhood learning, teen services and the virtual library.

Jacobs also worked at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library (Oregon), The Sacramento City-County Public Library (California) and the Deschutes County Library (Oregon).  From 1999 – 2007 she taught each spring at the iSchool with a focus on public library advocacy and politics.

Jacobs began her career as a children’s librarian forty years ago, and has received a number of honors throughout her career. Among other recognitions, Jacobs has been named by Seattle Magazine as one of Seattle's 25 Most Influential People and was included as one of Governing Magazine's Public Officials of the Year in 2001, the first librarian ever to receive this honor. Jacobs’ happiest moments are working to engage, build and strengthen communities.  She received a BA in Government from Mills College and an MLS from the University of Oregon.