2018 Distinguished Alumna

Rivkah Sass, '78, and her libraries stay ahead of the curve

By Jessi Loerch Thursday, November 8, 2018

Rivkah Sass is passionate about libraries — and she wants to help people understand libraries are so much more than just a collection of books. They are a vital part of the community, a resource that gives people the tools they need to grow and thrive.

“Libraries are about creating opportunities for people,” she said. “I love that it’s a place that has evolved as much as society. Libraries have gone from being a place only for books to a place that can help adults learn to read or help refugees settle into America. … We still fill the traditional roles of a library, but we do so much more, too.”

Sass, a 1978 graduate of the University of Washington Information School and the director for the Sacramento Public Library system, is the iSchool’s 2018 Distinguished Alumna.

Since 2009, Sass has led the Sacramento Public Library, the fourth-largest library system in California. Prior to that, she was director of the Omaha Public Library, and she has served in a number of roles throughout her career, including as a children’s librarian, a continuing-education coordinator and a reference and information services coordinator. She received a bachelor’s in political science from Sonoma State University in 1974 before earning her Master of Librarianship at the UW. Sass was also honored with the iSchool’s Notable Alumna award in 2001. In 2006, Library Journal named her Librarian of the Year.

"It’s ever evolving. The community changes, the needs of the community change and the library changes."

When Sass took the job in Sacramento, the library system was struggling. She welcomed the challenge and now leads a library system that is nationally recognized for its innovative programs. She describes her job as being the CEO of a nonprofit with a $48 million budget, 28 locations and about 300 employees. But much more than the numbers, she sees her job as supporting the community.

“We are one of those agencies that get to look at the whole person,” she said. “We get to look at what our community needs and figure out where do we fit in supporting that. It’s ever evolving. The community changes, the needs of the community change and the library changes.”

Sass has led the library as it created a number of innovative projects. She’s particularly proud of a program she began called “Let’s Talk About,” which encourages civil conversation on topics such as homelessness, bullying, racism and suicide.

As part of that program, the library offered “Let’s Talk about Gender.” Sass said several families traveled from the Bay Area to Sacramento to participate. One family had a transgender grandchild and wanted to hear a civil conversation and learn how to be supportive.

Sass, of course, isn’t the only one coming up with new ideas for the Sacramento Library. She empowers her employees to try new, unusual ideas.

One of those ideas, suggested by a librarian, was to offer tools and other objects for checkout. The library let patrons make suggestions and vote on what items should be available. Now the library checks out items as varied as GoPro cameras and pressure washers. The community also has access to a 3-D printer at the library.

Sass is proud of the library system’s Espresso Book Machine, which was funded by a grant that she wrote. At the time, it was one of just a few such machines in the country. The library started the I Street Press, a community publishing center. Writers can get expert advice from librarians on how to self-publish their books, including how to get a Library of Congress number or how to post the book for sale on Amazon.

Sass is also proud that while the Sacramento Library innovates, it keeps its focus on its overall goals, future and strategic plan.

“The staff are a part of the plan and they have a voice in what we want to do. I’m also really proud of the fact that we have a focus on young children. We embrace what a child needs from day one.”

"Rivkah is willing to make mistakes, to get messy, to try new things and to explore."

Caitlin Tormey, youth services librarian for the Sacramento Library and a 2017 iSchool graduate, appreciates Sass’s respect for the value of children’s programs and creativity. Tormey says that Sass brings a lot of excitement to the library.

“Rivkah is willing to make mistakes, to get messy, to try new things and to explore,” Tormey said. “We are encouraged to think outside the box.”

That energy and willingness to experiment echoes throughout the library system, Tormey said. She also appreciates that Sass is always working to make sure the library is a community space. Sometimes that means breaking the stereotypes of what a library is.

“We have some of the loudest storytimes ever,” Tormey said. “It’s beautiful controlled chaos. Learning and fun go together; the louder the storytime, the better it’s going. It’s really inviting to the community.”

Tormey appreciates being able to look up to an energetic, innovative library director. And Sass, in turn, loves working with new librarians.

“Something that gives me a lot of joy is working with a lot of young and very talented librarians. I truly get a lot of joy from seeing them carrying the torch,” she said. “They are so talented and so creative and so with it.”

Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the iSchool, has long admired Sass and followed her career. And he thinks she’s an excellent role model for iSchool students.

“She’s one of the people I always point a new person in the field to and say, ‘You can learn a lot from her because she’s one of the best we have,’” Janes said.

Janes remembers speaking with Sass once when she said, “I want to delight every person who comes to the library.”

Delight wasn’t the first word he would have thought of, but he’s remembered it ever since. It’s also a good word to describe Sass’s goals for her library and her overall attitude.

“She has such a positive energy, even when she’s talking about something she’s not happy about,” Janes said. “She’s looking for solutions rather than dwelling on the problem.”

Dan Trefethen, who attended the iSchool with Sass, said she impressed him with her energy and skills from the start. Dan, along with his wife, Joanna Trefethen, nominated Sass for the Distinguished Alumna award.

“Part of the reason Joanna and I put her up for the award is that she’s the quintessential learner,” Dan Trefethen said. “She’s not afraid to try something different.”

From the time he went to school with her, Trefethen recognized Sass as skilled and devoted.

“I thought she had a lot of potential; her intellect stood out. She had the perfect blend of fierce intelligence, great empathy and an outgoing nature.”

Trefethen worked in special libraries after graduation from the iSchool and served on the board of directors for the Special Libraries Association. He has followed Sass’s career over the years. He said he’s pleased to see the iSchool recognize such a successful public library director, one who is always thinking of her community.

“Rivkah tries everything she can think of. She always wants to make the library more effective at serving the community,” he said.