Jill Bourne

The Quintessential Sexy Librarian*

*Or so says Molly Ringwald

Nestled near her fourth floor office at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Jill Bourne is surrounded by stories—more than 1.7 million books at this library location alone. But you won’t find the San Jose Library Director’s favorite stories on the shelves. Bourne’s favorites are real life ones experienced by patrons every day at the library, as they discover a new aspect of their world and make their life better.

Bourne is the new director of libraries for the City of San Jose. She came here in July from San Francisco, where she was deputy city librarian for seven years. Now she takes the helm at San Jose’s 23-branch system, overseeing a budget of $38 million.

“What really makes me inspired about being in a library every day is that every day there are dozens of stories going on. There’s a person whose life has actually been changed by being able to have access to knowledge that made them improve their own life. And that’s an incredible gift. You see it happening every day, whether it’s a person with their child who has just figured out they have a reading disability they never knew about. Something has changed their life because they have access to information for free…A person filling out a job application online, who has never used a computer. We have hundreds of stories.”

The library system has more than 270 employees and serves more than six million visitors annually. It has more than two million items in its collections and circulates nearly twelve million items a year. Bourne shared her own life and library stories recently with Content.

What is your favorite story?
Bourne shares one from Varsha, a library patron who grew up in India. “Libraries were few and far between. I had to travel by bus for 45 minutes to get to a nice library, and it was not free. When I came to this country sixteen years back, I was amazed and impressed that the libraries were free! And that I could check out 100 books if I wanted to. I really valued this privilege here and value it even more now as I have a 10-year-old who is a voracious reader.”

What drew you to San Jose?
I was really drawn to the spirit of innovation. That, plus this really is an urban community, and that’s what I’ve always been committed to: libraries in urban communities. There is this perception of what Silicon Valley is, and it is true, there are all these great big companies and all this money and wealth, but it is also a very large city of a million people and we have all the urban issues that cities face. We have communities that need access to information and knowledge that aren’t getting that connection to this amazing culture of Silicon Valley.

This is a great library system and San Jose Public is an internationally known library system. It has achieved amazing things. It was one of the first libraries to get both the library of the year and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services award, called the National Medal, for organizations, the highest honor. This library was the first to get both.

How long have you been on West Coast?
I moved to the West Coast in 1995, nineteen years. I was on the East Coast in grad school trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and decided to go to library school.

How she chose her graduate school:
It was 106 degrees in the summer in Boston when I had to make my decision, and I lived in a fourth-floor walkup. I was there in this incredible, horrible heat, and thinking about where the library school programs were…One in Austin, one in Boston, and one in Seattle. My roommate and I were saying, ‘It’s going to be this hot every day in Austin. Let’s go to Seattle.’

Bourne has a bachelor’s degree in English from New York University and a master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington.

Plans for the library system here:
That’s a big question…There’s this whole realm of how libraries are in intraspace learning, getting access to even more technological tools, like learning how to use industry-level software, learning the tools how to get a job. We already do a lot of that. We teach people how to do resumés and how to use computers. What is that next step in the world of applied skills, like maker-type stuff. Learning how to make a digital film. Or do coding. We have some great programs like partnering with this national organization called Girls Who Code. Through them, we’re partnering with Google to do classes at our Evergreen branch for teen girls. That is the type of programming I’d like to see.

What other innovations is the library system trying?
We started [a tablet program] at the Educational Park Branch, which opened in May just before I started and we started the program subsequently. It’s called Tech Connect. We’re testing about four different tablets or reader devices. We’re testing it for us—how does the checkout work, what kind of cover do you need to keep it safe, what are the security issues, what are the use issues, what are the types of things people need to know when they start to use a tablet like this…Working with different demographic groups—what are the most commonly asked questions? Because that’s what we like to do, answer people’s questions, so then we can think about how to scale it. We’re also thinking of having the same program in at least one other branch soon. We want to take this out to as many locations as possible.

What other programming is on the horizon?
We want to create an instructional program this year. We really do see a need for classes, even self-directed online classes or classes in person.

What led you to become a librarian?
I love the public, and I definitely loved learning. So I got a job at a children’s library outside of Boston, and it literally was one of those moments, a huge eye-opening experience. This is exactly what I need to be doing.

I always liked working with kids. I love the energy and positivity and that really appealed to me at that part of my life. It still does. If you ever have a bad day, you should definitely go to a story time because everything is so exciting…You get so much positive feedback and excitement about life. I think that’s the thing that really drew me to that.

Personal life:
Bourne’s husband works for a global, environmental nonprofit doing IT projects. They have an 11-year-old son who is in middle school in San Jose and plays soccer. The family lives downtown, and Bourne walks to work.

Reading now:
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. The book is available in the San Jose Public Library.

What are your usual go-to books?
I spent time as a young adult as a children’s book selector; it was a great job. But when I was a teen, I was obsessed with Elizabethan tragedies and Greek tragedies, and Faulkner and James Joyce. I only read adult books when I was a kid. So then when I was an adult and I started reading these books for my job, I was really into young adult fiction. I actually read a lot of young adult fiction and fantasy. It’s really embarrassing because I have all of this young adult fiction in my house. You can read one in one day. It’s like watching a television show. They’re so action-oriented and character based. I find it very satisfying.

Recent read:
The entire Divergent series by Veronica Roth. The first movie is coming out in the spring. I wanted to read them before the movie comes out.

First book remember reading or being read to:
Probably Winnie-the-Pooh. My mom used to read to us all the time. I’m the youngest in my family, so I got read to before I remember.

My favorite book from that time is totally Pippi Longstocking. I loved Pippi Longstocking. I have a first edition of it my husband gave to me. She’s the original Riot grrrl. She’s the strongest girl in the world. Independently wealthy—I love that. Totally, totally inappropriate at all times…I remember I would laugh with my mom. I read sections of them sometimes just for fun.

What’s easy for you?
I always did like making order out of things. I think my brain naturally does that. I was an English major and a Math minor. I love the structure. On the other side, I love the creativity.

What keeps you up at night?
The fact that our branch libraries are open only four days a week. No, it really does. I really hate it. It’s something that we’re working really hard on. It all starts with being available to the community. When I know we’re not open on a day when kids are out of school and they don’t have anywhere to go, or on a weekend when families are together…that keeps me up a lot, and the uncertain funding for libraries that makes that happen.

One of the reasons I decided to come here [was] I saw a strong desire on the part of city officials to support the library. There are these beautiful libraries that had been built that weren’t open. When they talked to me, I thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to go there. That’s where they don’t open libraries.’

They told me right away that a plan was actually in place. The mayor himself and the city manager’s office and everyone I’ve talked to were very clear that they had already dedicated in that year to open libraries. It was the only department to get additional funding that year.

Describe the library system in one word.
It’s a gateway. It really is a starting place for any direction that you need to go in your life. It could be a gateway of information, of learning a new skill, connecting with other people in the community—so it’s a gateway.

The Molly Ringwald story:
In case you haven’t followed Ringwald’s career since she made The Breakfast Club, she has evolved into a thoughtful author, hence her appearance in San Francisco a couple of years ago at a literary event to discuss her book, When It Happens to You. Bourne was there, too, and afterward found herself face to face with Ringwald by the bar and mentioned she was a librarian. Ringwald responded by calling Bourne “the quintessential sexy librarian” and our very own book nerd has the tweet to prove it.

Written by Lynn Peithman Stock
Photography by Daniel Garcia

Full article originally appeared in Issue 6.0 Discover (Print SOLD OUT)
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