Broad of the Month: Michelle Jeske

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Lisa Ingarfield | @tritodefi

Libraries conjure moments of nostalgia for many of us.

As a child, my dad would regularly take me to my local public library. I got to pick out two or three books to check out every time. I remember those trips so clearly. I would get lost roaming through the stacks, partly reading book after book before I settled on the ones I wanted to take with me.

Today’s libraries are not the libraries of our childhoods. They are powerful places offering so much more than books and “quiet please” signs.

Falling into Library Sciences

After moving to Seattle for a public administration master’s degree at the University of Washington, Michelle Jeske decided she’d made the wrong choice. In the days before the internet was readily available for choosing graduate degrees, there were printed catalogs. So, Jeske headed to the admissions office at the University of Washington to figure out what she wanted to do instead. She literally flipped through the catalog looking for alternate degree programs she could transfer into without having to leave UW. Jeske had fond memories of spending a significant amount of time in the library when writing her undergraduate thesis. She also identifies as an avid reader and lover of collecting and categorizing information. Leafing through the catalog that day, she landed on Library Sciences and decided to enroll. The decision all those years ago to shift gears and change professions is a decision Jeske has never regretted. And a good thing too, as now, Jeske runs Denver’s own Public Library and is the city librarian. This month marks her three year anniversary in the role.

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She Believed She Could, So She Did

Moving to Denver in 1999, Jeske, like many of us, fell in love with Colorado’s sunshine and outdoor activities. She joined the public library in 2001, and has served in multiple roles including senior librarian and helping to establish the community technology center. In 2015, the Denver Public Library ran a national search for its new city librarian. Jeske was ready to try something new in a field she loved and was excited to see if she could make the leap. After conversations with friends, colleagues, and most importantly herself, she decided to apply.

Jeske’s decision to apply for the role is situated in the larger context of gender disparity in library leadership. In its 129 year history, the Denver Public Library has had 10 city librarians. Jeske and her predecessor are the only two women. The Library Sciences is a field dominated by women, and at the Denver Public Library 79% of the librarians are women, with 64% of all staff identifying as women. Despite these numbers, there are still few women in key executive leadership roles.

Men are routinely hired into leadership positions, despite the significant amount of qualified women in the field. Jeske is optimistic, however. She feels this culture is changing. For Jeske, being a woman leader in Denver specifically, has been a great experience. She has never felt unsupported as the city’s librarian and this has enabled her to be successful in her role.

For the Love of the Library

The brand of most libraries is books. And while “we do love books” as Jeske says, libraries do so much more. She laughs as she says this. Jeske loves working at the library. She sees daily the ways the library positively affects the Denver community, and how the library’s programs and services touch people’s lives.

There were over four million in-person visitors to the Denver Public Library in 2017, with over 10 million online visits. Her heart is in public work and the library allows her to engage in meaningful initiatives that serve a wide variety of people and families. Jeske beams as she talks about the talented people working at Denver Public Library and the programs she oversees. It has one of highest employee engagement rates in the city of Denver and she believes this is because of every staff member’s commitment to the library’s mission.

The public library model is truly open and welcoming for everybody to freely access. The Denver Public Library hosts a variety of programs, many for kids and teens. Whether its a program about circuitry and robotics allowing kids to incorporate LED lights into a t-shirt, or enabling creative engagement opportunities in STEM subjects in the library’s “maker spaces,” the library tries to do it all. As Jeske points out, kids are in school about 20% of the time, and many do not have resources for additional fun and creative learning opportunities. The library works hard to provide its community with informal learning opportunities over the summer, on weekends, and after school. In 2017, Jeske saw attendance in their youth programs reach almost 300,000. She wants to focus on getting kids ready to learn before they get to kindergarten and help solve the third grade reading challenge. No small feats, of course. But Jeske is deeply committed to the library’s role in meeting Denver’s changing needs.

In addition to the library’s work with kids and teens, the library offers resources to local communities including english language, citizenship preparation, and access to immigration lawyers for immigrants and refugees in ten Denver library branches. Libraries continue to be places people trust, Jeske says. In today’s climate, where many immigrants and refugees have an understandable fear of the government, broadly construed, the Denver Public Library works hard to build and maintain trust so immigrants and refugees have access to the resources and support they need.

The Future

One of the questions Jeske is asked a lot, is what is the future of the brick and mortar library? Surely, with the advent of so many online modes of learning and ways to find information, do physical libraries have a future? Yes, Jeske says. Absolutely. Libraries are no longer spaces of hushed conversations and shushing librarians. They are a community space; a space to learn, connect, and grow with others.

Research demonstrates millennials are invested in their public libraries and are more likely to use them than any previous generation. The future then, is looking bright for the Denver Public Library. It’s clear how much pride Jeske has in her work and in the value of libraries in general. She is excited to continue to lead the Denver Public Library into the future and grow as the city librarian.

Upcoming Denver Public Library Programs for Broads of the Grown Up or Mini Variety

Girls Who DIY

A hands-on exploration of all things maker. Participants will work on projects involving everything STEAM: coding, robotics, web design, 3D printing, sewing, soldering, and more. Ages 12-18.

Pink Progression

An exhibit of works by Colorado artists in commemoration of January 21, 2017 Women's March

Women of Denver History

The city of Denver was shaped by the efforts of many great people. Join Active Minds for a focus on the women of Denver and their contributions to the city and the state.

YouthBiz Presents: Startup - Think, Speak, and Act like an Entrepreneur Spring Break Mini-Camp

YouthBiz and the Denver Public Library have collaborated to bring an entrepreneurial focused program to the Library. Instructors will provide 10-hours of engaging curriculum and activities that will enable participants to learn, think, speak, and act like an entrepreneur. Students will learn entrepreneurial skills for 21st century learners including; critical thinking and reasoning, information literacy, collaboration, self-direction, and invention. On the final day of the camp participants will take part in a Business Pitch Competition. The winning team will receive a cash prize. Light refreshments provided. Registration required.