Exit Interview: 10 Questions for Deborah Jakubs

As she prepares to step down, we asked Deborah Jakubs to reflect on her nearly four decades at Duke and share some of her thoughts on librarianship, leadership, and why you can’t have a great university without a great library at its center.


When you were planning for retirement, you probably didn’t expect your last couple of years would coincide with a global pandemic, a nation-wide racial reckoning, and a fundamental shift in the way we work. What have been some of the toughest challenges you’ve had to deal with these last two years? What about some of the bright spots?

One of the toughest challenges has been striking a balance between maintaining continuity in library services and making sure that our people don’t burn out. Our staff is so incredibly dedicated, and the campus depends on us so much. You have to balance the need to continue our operations with being sensitive and empathetic, making sure that everyone’s level of dedication to their work is healthy, so that they also keep themselves, their families, and their kids healthy.

On top of that came an intense time of reckoning around racial and social justice. In the summer of 2020, there was a sense of urgency to do something. But what could we do when we were working from home and our buildings were closed? Life wasn’t exactly normal, and it still isn’t. But we found many ways to press on and make ourselves better, to engage in community reflection, to become more welcoming and inclusive, to create an Antiracism Roadmap, all of which I’m proud of.

One of the very brightest spots was opening the buildings to the students again and seeing how they flocked back in to what I think of as their spaces. It was a reminder of how much we’re appreciated, and how central the Libraries are to teaching and learning at Duke. Another bright spot was when our Library Takeout video went viral, a great example of how we tried to keep our senses of humor through it all. Over 900,000 views on YouTube!

Deborah Jakubs in 1993 (left), when she served as head of the newly created International and Area Studies Department, and today (right).

You started working at Duke in 1983. Surely in the last 38 years you’ve had opportunities or offers to go elsewhere. What are some of the reasons why you’ve stayed at Duke for so long?

Despite having spent most of my career at a single institution, my work and responsibilities have been quite varied over the years. I started out as a General Bibliographer, then I became the Librarian for Latin America and Iberia, then I became the Head of Collection Development. Then I created our International and Area Studies department and became head, while continuing to be responsible for Latin America and Iberia. Then I became Associate University Librarian for Collections. And while in that role I had a six-year stint splitting my time here and as a Visiting Program Officer at the Association of Research Libraries. So I really had many different jobs and different challenges along the way.

Another reason I stayed is that the Duke Libraries, and the people who work here, are so highly regarded. We’re seen as partners and collaborators who bring to the table an incredible set of skills that complement what faculty themselves have. There’s a sense of being truly valued as a group of smart and dedicated people, not just a service. And it’s not that way other places, believe me. What we have at Duke is something very special, and it has kept me here.

Images of Perkins Library circa 2005, prior to the Perkins Project renovations.

Thirty-eight years is a long time, but it’s not uncommon to hear of library co-workers retiring after 25, 30, 40 years or more. Right now, the average Duke library staff member has 13 years of service. Why do you think so many people stay for so long? What makes working here so satisfying?

This is the kind of place where you can have ideas and see them implemented. I often think about a conversation I had years ago with Bob Keohane. I’ve known Bob and Nan Keohane (former Duke University President, 1993-2004) since I was a grad student at Stanford, where they were teaching at the time. When David Ferriero announced he was leaving Duke to head up the New York Public Library, I had to make a choice. I could either accept a job I had been offered leading the University of Chicago Library, or throw my hat into the ring here. While I was trying to decide what to do, Bob told me something that I’ve remembered often: that institutions have personalities. Duke’s personality is very different from Chicago’s. We’re a younger institution, but also more experimental and entrepreneurial. That same personality also pervades the Duke Libraries. We have very strong traditional collections and services, but we also like to try new things and we are encouraged to do just that. So I think there’s a sense among our library staff that they can make a difference with their ideas. Not just do a job but really contribute and be appreciated for their creativity and innovation. In the end I decided I would be more comfortable at Duke.

How do you think your academic background as a Latin Americanist influenced your perspective on the work and mission of a research library?

I think it’s more the fact that I have a strong background in research that has influenced my perspective. So I understand the value of deep and broad collections that are curated by people with the knowledge to anticipate scholarly trends, but who can also be responsive to the needs of scholars for what might seem like obscure materials.

When I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford, I remember walking through the stacks and coming across a city directory for Buenos Aires from 1880. And I thought, this book has information that is so important to my work! Who bought this? Who had the forethought to put this here for me? Obviously, we can’t be a big warehouse of books “just in case.” But we do have a serious responsibility as a major research library to assemble and curate collections in areas of strength that people will come to use—not only our own students and faculty, but researchers from around the world. We are known for our collecting in certain fields, and it’s our responsibility to continue to build those deep and broad distinctive collections, for present and future scholars and students.

The von der Heyden Pavilion under construction in 2005 (left) and today.

As a library leader, not just at Duke but in the profession as a whole, you’ve had an influence on many people over the years. When you think about your own career path, who were some of the most influential or inspiring people you met along the way?

One of them would be David Ferriero, who served as Duke’s University Librarian prior to me, and with whom I had the great pleasure of working. Another would be David Stam, who used to lead the New York Public Library and went on to lead the libraries at Syracuse University. Then there’s Nan Keohane, whom I mentioned earlier. She was a role model for me, and I have great admiration for her. I keep a quote from Nan near my desk in my office, and it sums up a significant part of my philosophy on leadership: “I learned the importance of having good people around you, because there’s never a job that you do all by yourself. Knowing how to pick the right people, knowing how to work with them, inspire them, be inspired by them, help them, criticize them, encourage them to criticize you in the right thoughtful ways is an invaluable part of being a leader.”

Compassion and empathy are really central to my view of leadership, and they’re central to the people I admire the most. You also learn a lot from watching people you don’t admire for their leadership style. Understanding what not to do can be an important part of forming who you are as a leader.

Looking back on your time as University Librarian, what are some of the things you’re most proud of?

I’m really proud of having overseen the Perkins Project, the physical renovation of the Libraries on Duke’s West Campus, and watching them become the academic and social center of the university. The renovation of the Rubenstein Library meant that, at last, Duke had a library facility on a par with our remarkable special collections. And I’m proud that the Perkins Project was very inclusive of students, faculty, and staff. That’s one of the great lessons I learned from the architects we’ve worked with, especially Geoff Freeman and Tom Kearns. I used to think that renovating a building was simple and straightforward. You just fix it up. But no, I learned that the first thing you do is sit down with a group of stakeholders and ask, “What’s going to happen here? What are the functions of this space?” And you build up from there.

Along with the renovations, I’m also proud of our record of fundraising over the years. I will be very pleased to see the Lilly Library renovated and expanded. That’s the final piece we’re trying to finish now, to bring that charming library up to modern standards. I look forward to being at that re-dedication event in a few years.

The Rubenstein Library under renovation in 2013 (left) and after renovation in 2015.

One of the few constants about working in a library is change. Few parts of Duke have changed so much as the Libraries. Looking back over almost four decades, it would take a long time to describe all the changes you’ve seen. But is there anything about this place or the work we do that has essentially stayed the same?

I think one aspect that has stayed the same is our service mentality. We provide the essential intellectual scaffolding or infrastructure that supports the teaching and research enterprise of the entire university, across all disciplines. The scope of what we do has greatly broadened over time. But that basic service philosophy plays out in all of our operations and in many different forms, from special collections to research data management and more, across all interactions that our expert staff have with library users, every day.

What are some of your hopes for the Duke University Libraries as you pass the torch to someone else?

Obviously I have high hopes for the completion of the Lilly Project. Another thing I hope for is budget stability. Because we support everyone on campus and are an essential player in intellectual life, we need budget stability and predictability to keep up with the demand for our collections and services—and the talented staff who provide those services. And as Duke prepares for a new capital campaign, I hope that the Libraries have a seat up close to the table, that the university recognizes the centrality of the Libraries to all of its campaign priorities.

But deep down, because I’ve been in the Libraries so long and feel that we’re a kind of family, a close-knit community, what I really want is for the next person to also feel that way, and to take good care of our people.

Perkins Library under renovation in 2005 (left), and the freshly completed Bostock Library and Perkins-Bostock connector, 2006.

One of the great things about working in a world-class library is getting to see and touch priceless literary and historical treasures. If retiring University Librarians got to take one thing from our special collections and keep it for themselves, what would you choose?

Ha! Maybe one of the double elephant folio Audubons. (Duke has a complete set of the Birds of America.) I’d settle for one volume, but then I would be breaking up the set. I’d be happy if I could just borrow it from time to time.

After you officially step down, you’ve said you’ll be on a six-month sabbatical to pursue two of your own research projects. Tell us a little more about what you’re going to be doing.

Three years ago I traveled to the Falkland Islands or, to the Argentines, the Islas Malvinas, and I interviewed a number of people who live there. The Anglo-Argentine community has been an interest of mine since I was a graduate student. Of all the immigrant groups in Argentina, it was among the smallest in size but had a disproportionately large impact. I ended my dissertation with an epilogue about the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was happening at the time I was writing. I’m interested in following up on some of those conversations and maybe exploring that identity a bit more.

I’m also going to be helping to organize and process Ariel Dorfman’s papers. The last trip that I made anywhere before the pandemic was to Chile to box up his books and papers there and bring them here to Duke. I’ve known Ariel for many years, he’s been a close family friend. I would like to make a contribution by helping future researchers gain access to his materials. So in a way, both of these projects are a return to my roots as a researcher and a librarian.