iSchool Distinguished Alumni Award

'Force of nature': Jill McKinstry's passion for libraries runs deep

By Mary Lynn Lyke Friday, November 6, 2020

Universities expect graduate students to engage in scholarly research. Undergraduates, not so much. Jill McKinstry, champion of rigorous undergraduate learning, set out to change that on the University of Washington campus. “Undergraduates were not often getting those opportunities to do original research and contribute to the world of knowledge,” says the 2020 iSchool Distinguished Alumna, director of Odegaard Undergraduate Library for 17 years.

Working closely with partners over the years, the tenacious library leader helped push through such innovations as writing and research tutors for undergraduates, 24-hour undergraduate library hours and lectures exposing undergraduates to cutting-edge faculty research methods. “Jill gets really excited about good ideas and she’s willing to put in the work to make them happen,” says her collaborator Janice DeCosmo, associate vice provost for undergraduate research and associate dean for undergraduate academic affairs.

DeCosmo and McKinstry were inspired to action by the 1998 Boyer Report, which focused on reinventing undergraduate education through inquiry and research. “This was really the impetus for transforming undergraduate education across the country at large research universities,” says McKinstry. Among their successful collaborations were new library research awards for UW undergraduates, introduced in 2004.

Jill McKinstry points to a sign welcoming visitors to Odegaard library.
Jill McKinstry was the director of Odegaard Undergraduate Library for 17 years.

“Faculty love it when their students win these awards,” says McKinstry. She herself confesses to tearing up when she hears today’s UW undergraduates present their research on campus. Some, she points out, now present at national conferences. “That would have been unheard of pre-1990s.”

So would the number of undergrads now conducting scholarly research. Data show undergraduate research at the UW has increased more than tenfold over two decades. “Undergraduates have really embraced it,” says McKinstry (’87, Master of Librarianship).

Colleagues describe the librarian emeritus as a super-focused, equity-driven, get-it-done leader who is both low-key and high-energy. She’s a master of networking and persuasion. “She has been visionary, restless, relentless, always looking for new and effective ways of reaching out to undergraduate students,” says John Holmes, expository writing program librarian in the Odegaard Writing and Research Center. “Her marketing skills brought a new dimension to the traditional, staid library profile and pushed us all to the top of our game to keep up with her.”

“The fabulous Jill McKinstry” is the term Betsy Wilson, vice provost and dean of UW Libraries, uses to describe her. “Jill is a force of nature, completely dedicated to the power of education and libraries to transform individual lives and societies,” says Wilson, who created a position for McKinstry in 2006 as her special assistant in undergraduate education and programs.

The position put McKinstry at the table whenever key discussions about undergraduates took place across campus. “Jill saw she could make a big impact on undergraduate students,” says Wilson, “especially those who came from not as privileged a background as she came from.”

Helping others is hard-wired in McKinstry. In 2001, she and her husband created the Jill and Joseph McKinstry Libraries Endowed Fellowship, providing scholarships to underrepresented students seeking an iSchool MLIS. UW Libraries, working in partnership, provides the fellows with paid work experience. Most have ended up working in academic libraries, helping to diversify the field, says McKinstry. “You hope that your librarians reflect the population and cultural diversity that they are serving.”

Jill and Joe McKinstry
Jill and Joe McKinstry have been strong supporters of the iSchool and its Native North American Indigenous Knowledge initiative.

The philanthropic couple has also provided financial support for faculty at the iSchool’s unique Native North American Indigenous Knowledge research program, which explores the intersection of information, technology, and Native culture and knowledge systems. This year, the McKinstrys launched an endowed Ph.D. fellowship for the program. They’ve also started a special fund that helps support the University of Washington Press’s publication of books on indigenous topics. The most recent release is Unsettling Native Art Histories on the Northwest Coast.

“You cannot be from this region and not appreciate the need for preserving the language and the culture and the ways of Native Americans,” she says. “We’re on their land and this needs to be talked about and written about.”

McKinstry, who was awarded a David B. Thorud Leadership Award in 2009, admits she’s a stickler for finishing what she starts. “Diabolically methodical,” her husband once described her. That may help explain how she accomplished so much in her 27 years on the UW campus, including overseeing a dramatic, whirlwind renovation of Odegaard.

“Jill was absolutely the key figure in leading the Odegaard renovation,” says Bob Stacey, dean of Arts and Sciences. He co-chaired the renovation committee with her. “Jill led the visioning process, hiring the Miller Hull Partnership design firm and working closely with them throughout the project. She was also the key figure in building administrative support for the project, first within the committee that oversaw the project and then within the University Libraries and in the provost’s office.”

The 2012-13 remodel transformed Odegaard from a dark, drab study hall — a “concrete monolith,” McKinstry describes it — into a friendly, vibrant research and  support hub with a massive new undulating skylight, built using 80 percent repurposed stair railings. The reimagined library introduced the UW’s first active classrooms for dynamic hands-on learning and student interaction; technology and learning studios; and the Writing and Research Center. A newly refurbished 100-seat room accommodates Research Exposed!, the class co-founded by McKinstry and DeCosmo that introduces undergraduates to faculty research methods in different disciplines.

McKinstry and the team accomplished the entire $16.6 million, state-funded Odegaard remodel —  a renovation that would win prestigious architectural awards — in record time. “What is normally a 44-month process was accomplished in 22 months,” she says. “We worked night and day.”

Jill McKinstry reads in Odegaard library after a renovation that brought sunlight into the formerly drab space.
Jill McKinstry reads in Odegaard library after a renovation that brought sunlight into the formerly drab space.

McKinstry plays as hard as she works, friends say. She and her husband, who founded the Joseph McKinstry Construction Company in 1977, like to sail, kayak, bicycle, camp, hike, and take off on grand adventures. They have paddled as far as the remote Haida Gwaii islands in British Columbia. They have bicycled in Chile and Myanmar, Greece and New Zealand. Until the coronavirus outbreak, they both played in a local orchestra: Jill on cello, Joe on bass.

They are passionate about local art and have filled their historic Mount Baker Craftsman home with well-loved pieces. During a Zoom interview, McKinstry sits before a backdrop of giant, luscious pears, part of a mural by friend and celebrated Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner. Around the corner is a carved cedar post, and a big black papier-mâché bull head constructed of paper bags hangs on the wall of the living room. “We’re not collectors, just appreciators,” Joe McKinstry once told Seattle Magazine.

Jill McKinstry grew up in Queen Anne and Magnolia, playing tennis and skiing with her siblings and father, a Seattle attorney, and mother, a southern belle from Georgia. Even at Queen Anne High School, McKinstry was a super-organizer, working on various committees and revving up rallies as a cheerleader. “She was part of that pep squad esprit de corps,” says iSchool alum and retired government librarian Marcie Stone, a high-school classmate who nominated McKinstry for the iSchool Distinguished Alumni award. “Even as a teen, she was as competent, intelligent, capable, accomplished, warm and welcoming as she is now.”

McKinstry is an avid reader who helped develop  the UW’s Common Book program for incoming freshmen. (This year, they are all reading How to Be an Anti-Racist.) As a child, she loved going to the local  library. “I’d ride my bike there, stop and pick up a couple candy bars, then go home and read all day,” she says. “But I never envisioned being a librarian.”

That vision didn’t take form until well into her academic career. She began her student years at the UW, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish literature and linguistics. “Linguistics and language are like math and librarianship in a way. It all fits together in a system. Something in my brain likes that,” she says.

Studies abroad took her to Mexico and Spain, where she learned first-hand about the underground theater flourishing during Franco’s oppressive regime. After taking time off to raise two children, help with the family business, and teach middle-school Spanish, she started studying classical Greek for fun. When she discovered that many people studying classics turn to librarianship, the light went on. “I said, ‘Aha. That’s it.’”

She didn’t even have a computer when she started at the iSchool — then the Graduate School of Library and Information Science — in 1985. By the time she left, she had mastered computing and the binary system, along with crucial librarianship skills. “The iSchool taught us the importance of veracity, checking your resources and challenging assumptions — some very good things that have lasted me a long time,” says McKinstry, who would become a recognized leader in national library associations, highly regarded for her publications and lectures.

After graduating and doing her fieldwork at the Library of Congress, McKinstry was offered a part-time, temporary position at UW’s Fisheries-Oceanography library. “What did I know about it? Absolutely nothing,” she says. “But I had a wonderful boss who mentored me and taught me so much about the scientific language and how to find the resources.”

At that time, faculty visited the Fisheries-Oceanography library frequently to access printed scientific journals — serial publications had yet to go online. In later years, McKinstry would help with the UW campus libraries’ transition to increased access to online resources. She worked as assistant to the director of University Libraries and as head of the Interface Working Group, working with UW IT to develop the public interfaces to the libraries’ online catalog and databases.

Jill McKinstry stands on the stairway to Mount Baker Park near her home in Seattle.
In retirement, Jill McKinstry helped organize the effort to create a safe path to Mount Baker Park in Seattle. (Photo by Doug Parry)

In 1997, she was hired at Odegaard, beginning the long directorship that ended with her retirement in 2014. Over her years at the undergraduate library, she took many young people under her wing, encouraging them, showing them the ropes and also showing up when they needed a personal assist. “She is an incredibly compassionate, thoughtful, and generous human being,” says Heather Gillanders, one of McKinstry’s mentees, who is now working as an academic librarian at Tacoma Community College. McKinstry helped Gillanders get into the iSchool MLIS program in 2009 and “made a consistent effort to help develop my confidence and knowledge.”

Those McKinstry mentored say they still feel her influence six years after her retirement. “She’s one of those people who leads through deeds, not words. I really respect that,” says 2005 iSchool MLIS graduate Amanda Hornby, who heads the four-year-old Undergraduate Student Success Team at Odegaard. “I feel like it’s her legacy that allowed my team to be created.”

Hornby says that, above all, she learned the importance of forming strong relationships in academia from McKinstry. “She had this great saying: ‘Look for the light in their eyes.’ Go where you see enthusiasm, connection and a kindred spirit.”

Despite immense work pressures, McKinstry has always found time to volunteer. She served six years on the University Book Store board at a time when the web was turning the publishing world upside-down. With her family, she has volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, building houses for people in need in low-income neighborhoods, on reservations, and internationally, in Hungary, Mexico and South Africa.

She remains a longtime, active member of the iSchool’s MLIS Advisory Board and, upon retiring, took a term as president of the University of Washington Retirement Association board. She is the treasurer of the Grandmothers Against Gun Violence Foundation, formed after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. She also helped organize a group to work with Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods on creating a safe entry into a beloved Mount Baker park. “It was quite a process. Everything I learned at the UW, working with people and respecting process, helped me figure out how to move ahead,” she says.

While McKinstry quietly declares herself “humbled” at being chosen for the Distinguished Alumni award, others say it was only a matter of time. “Jill is a national leader in thinking about the changing role of librarians and the changing function of undergraduate libraries,” says Wilson. “She has had a huge impact on changing the shape and the nature of the profession. She truly is fabulous.”