Jill McKinstry, '87, named iSchool's 2020 Distinguished Alumna

Jill McKinstry
Jill McKinstry

When Jill McKinstry led the 2011-13 renovation of the University of Washington’s Odegaard Undergraduate Library, she had half the time it would normally take. To pull it off, the project needed a master organizer, someone who could find the right partners off campus and marshal the constituents on campus.

Naturally, with McKinstry leading the way, it came in ahead of time and under budget, and it won rave reviews.

McKinstry, the retired director of Odegaard and special assistant to the dean of UW libraries with a long list of professional accomplishments, has been named the 2020 Information School Distinguished Alumna.

The Odegaard renovation capitalized on McKinstry’s talent for building partnerships and incorporating students’ needs. The $17 million project, done in just two years, turned a building that was best described as “brown” into a bright, open space where students congregate and collaborate. It brought the first active-learning classrooms to the UW campus.

“It was really one of the most thrilling, exciting, fun projects I’ve ever been through,” she said. “What I love about the library is the collaborative nature. If you as a student want to visualize your learning, you now have whiteboards everywhere to write out what you’re thinking, what you’re learning.”

Odegaard is perhaps the most visible legacy of McKinstry’s time at the UW, but she left her mark in many ways, said longtime friend and colleague Betsy Wilson, vice provost and dean of UW Libraries.

“We call her ‘the fabulous Jill McKinstry,’” Wilson said. “She has fabulous people skills. She’s a great mentor. She is a great organizer. She can envision what needs to be done. She empowers staff to be creative and innovative. She’s very technologically savvy.”

Wilson noted that McKinstry became a go-to person for campus committees and task forces on undergraduate education.

“She became very much the voice of the student experience, and actually started using words that we now use all the time – student success, holistic approach,” Wilson said.

Marcie Stone, a member of the MLIS Advisory Board and longtime advocate for the Information School, nominated McKinstry for the award. She listed a litany of accomplishments, among them: making Odegaard available to students 24 hours a day; co-leading the development of the first library graphical user interface; co-developing a course, “Research Exposed,” to introduce undergraduates to different aspects of UW research; and partnering with the Office of Undergraduate Research to provide opportunities and mentoring for students.

Some common threads run through McKinstry’s work during her UW career: a desire to improve the undergraduate experience, and a belief that libraries play a vital role for students.

"I fell in love with every single class, whether it was learning about computers, database management, information retrieval, children’s literature – I loved it all."

“Each of these programs and accomplishments not only benefits the University of Washington, but also serves as a benchmark for other library programs and contributes to the improvement of undergraduate library services throughout the profession,” Stone wrote in making the nomination.

A committee of past iSchool Distinguished Alumni Award recipients chooses finalists for the award from nominations made by alumni, faculty and staff. Dean Anind Dey then chooses the recipient.

McKinstry is a native Seattleite and triple-Husky. After earning her undergraduate degree at the UW, she spent the early part of her career teaching before going back for her master’s in Spanish literature and linguistics. She thought about going for a Ph.D. in that field before getting the itch to take classes in what was then the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

“I fell in love with every single class, whether it was learning about computers, database management, information retrieval, children’s literature – I loved it all,” she said.

After earning her master’s in librarianship in 1987, she got a part-time, temporary job in the UW Fisheries-Oceanography Library. That led to a 27-year career as a UW librarian, 17 as director of Odegaard.

Since retiring in 2014, she served a three-year term on the UW Retirement Association Board of Directors and was president from 2017-18. She’s been active in the community, leading the effort to add a safe pathway for pedestrians and bicyclists into Mount Baker Park in Seattle and joining the board of the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence Foundation.

McKinstry also continues to give to the librarianship profession. She’s a member of the iSchool’s MLIS Advisory Board and, with her husband, Joe, established the McKinstry Libraries Fellowship in 2001. The endowment provides financial assistance to graduate students from underrepresented populations to pursue an MLIS degree. So far, the McKinstry Fellowship has introduced 14 students to careers in academic librarianship.  In 2016, the McKinstrys added to their support of the iSchool with the establishment of an endowed faculty fellowship in Native American Indigenous Knowledge.

“It is a gift to be a librarian and I’m just extremely grateful to have had that opportunity, on so many levels,” she said. “Librarians are really good people and it is a privilege to serve in this field.”

Learn more about the Odegaard renovation and hear from McKinstry in this video: