No Slowing Down
Longtime library director is ready for new adventures
By Jessica Laskey
When Rivkah Sass retired last month as director and CEO of the Sacramento Public Library, she left behind a list of accomplishments that could fill, well, a book.
But make no mistake. Just because she retired doesn’t mean the tireless Sass will be less busy.
“I have other adventures to be determined,” she says. “My No. 1 priority will be spending time with my two new grandchildren who live in Idaho—Facetime is nice but it’s not the same as cuddling two squirmy, stinky boys.
“No. 2 on my list is to get certified to teach English as a foreign language so I can do more work with the Zaatari refugee camp on the Syrian border. There’s also my guilty pleasure, the Isle of Wight Donkey Sanctuary. I plan to go there to volunteer. I also want to learn to read music. And, of course, I plan to consult with libraries, since they’re my passion.”
Sass’ best friend implores her to stop adding to her retirement to-do list lest it make everyone else look bad, but that’s how the woman is wired. A native of Manteca, she knew from an early age that she wanted to make her living in libraries.
“The first time my dad took me to a public library and said you get to take books home and bring them back, I thought, really? That’s amazing!” she says. “I still feel that way.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from Sonoma State College and a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Washington, Sass landed her first job as a librarian in November 1978.
The industry was just becoming automated. Sass remembers the first time she checked out a book by computer instead of card. Over the next four decades, she enjoyed a front-row seat to the rapid advancement of library technology.
“Now I can use an app to download a movie or book from the library—or read Cosmo on my phone,” Sass says. “It’s amazing. Then when I think about what we’ve lived through for the last year and a half and watching the library pivot and figure out how to stay relevant and connect with people and still do our jobs—it’s been such an adventure.”
Sass’ 12-year adventure at the helm of the Sacramento Public Library had its ups and downs. In 2009, Sass moved to Sacramento from Omaha, where she headed the Omaha Public Library for six years. She arrived at a time of turmoil. But Sass and her team righted the ship and introduced programs and services that have made the local library system the “anchor institution” Sass knew it could be.
Some of her accomplishments include adding staffing to support more youth programming; more access hours at all locations; more than doubling the funding for books and materials; starting the I Street Press, where local writers can self-publish books; introducing the Library of Things, which allows members to check out everything from a GoPro camera to a leaf blower; and launching the Career Online High School initiative for adults to earn a high school diploma.
“We have an amazing team,” Sass says. “A lot of these things weren’t my idea, but I was the cheerleader. What is the job of a library director? You are literally the CEO of your organization. Your No. 1 job is to remove obstacles so other people can do their jobs. It doesn’t matter who gets the credit as long as it happens.”
Sass has received her share of accolades, including being named Librarian of the Year by the Library Journal in 2006 and earning the American Library Association’s 2020 Charlie Robinson Award, given to a public library director who has been “a risk taker, an innovator, or a change agent.”
In honor of Sass, Friends of the Sacramento Public Library launched the Young Readers Fund to provide books, materials, programming and technology for young readers.
“I think it’s just the right time to be leaving,” Sass says. “As difficult as the last few years have been, I still love waking up every day and going to work. There’s a certain synergy to growing up in Manteca and ending your professional career 60 miles from home. That’s a circle that I’m really grateful for. It’s been such an incredible adventure.”
Jessica Laskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.