Mary Jean Jakubowski started her professional career in the health care field of occupational therapy, where she worked for 13 years. But it was a master’s degree in library science that opened the door to her current position as director of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

Jakubowski grew up in West Seneca, and recalls the powerful role books played in her childhood whether she was listening to stories read by her mother or visiting her local branch library.

Today, the systems’s 37 libraries continue to deliver valuable services to communities throughout the area. Jakubowski, working out of the Central Library downtown, is determined to meet the needs of library patrons of all ages. At age 52, she lives in Lancaster with her husband and two daughters.

People Talk: Didn’t you want be a teacher?

Mary Jean Jakubowski: I absolutely did. My first year of college I was studying to be a teacher, and then my mother was laid off from teaching. So I switched gears and I became an occupational therapy assistant. I loved science and I thought health care was an avenue I could be able to get involved with that didn’t involve math. My father had been ill for many, many years, and I was always a caregiver so it just made sense for me to go in that direction.

PT: When did you know that libraries would be your professional future?

MJJ: I had wanted to get my master’s, and I was looking at several options at UB. I was looking at counseling and social work – all maintaining the direction I was going in. A friend asked me to pick up some literature for her at the library school. I ended up talking to the assistant dean, who sold me on the possibilities. He told me about the need for medical librarians. I walked out and ended up enrolling in library school, but I switched over to public librarianship and never looked back. I was out of school less than six months when I was able to land a job here at the library.

PT: What recent innovation at the library responded to a community need?

MJJ: Definitely our technology. We’ve had a demand for downloadable materials. Things like e-book readers, Nooks, Kindles are everyday items. Not only are we purchasing downloadable books so you can visit the library’s website and download books for free, we have downloadable music for free and videos. Plus we are also holding classes on how to use those tools.

PT: Aren’t e-books your competition?

MJJ: A lot of people say that even Netflix is competition to us. They’re really not. They enhance us. And I’ll tell you why. We have to go with what the publishers allow libraries to have. The chances of us having the most recent downloadable book by John Grisham – it’s not going to happen. But some books are not in a downloadable format, especially older ones. So people come to the library and borrow that book. But the books we do have for download are free, as are three songs a week from the complete Sony music library.

PT: What is the borrowing limit on books?

MJJ: Fifty at one time is the maximum on one library card, and we have people who will take out 50 books. Today’s library is not your grandfather’s library, and I don’t mean any disrespect. Information now is accessible in so many other ways. Our libraries not only give you access to that information but we vet the information. We work with you to make sure you are getting legitimate information.

PT: What library processes have been refined over time?

MJJ: We have done a tremendous amount to reduce the handling of materials. We have self-checkouts now based on radio frequency identification. Instead of handling each book individually across the scanner we take a stack of five books and discharge them together. The motivation is efficiency because we’ve had to reduce our staff significantly due to budget cuts.

PT: As director, where have you made your mark?

MJJ: Marketing the library. It’s so hard for me to talk about myself. Certainly I’m known for creating goals and objectives and organizational competencies – things that this library system has not done so regularly. We want to increase our circulation.

PT: What was your circulation last year?

MJY: Just under 8 million pieces of material. The previous year we actually did a little bit more – 8.2 million.

PT: Tell me about some of the library’s lesser known treasures.

MJY: We have the NBC Orchestra collection here. Another collection that nobody really knows we have is the sheet music collection. We have sheet music dating back to the 1700s. Much of it is in good shape. What’s interesting, is we get a lot of people coming here looking for period costume designs. The covers of sheet music contain beautiful period sketches.

PT: Where’s your favorite spot in the Central Library?

MJY: I love to go down to the stacks, where we store books that aren’t used much and don’t warrant being out on the open shelves.

PT: What’s the best thing a book has done for you?

MJY: Taught me it was OK to grieve for somebody who is still alive. I got that from “Midlife Orphan” by Jane Brooks. There are chapters in that book that speak to Alzheimer’s. My mother has Alzheimer’s, and you go through this guilt feeling that you’re grieving for someone who is still alive. It was very poignant.

PT: Tell me about a special moment you experienced in a library.

MJY: Helping an individual, a woman who was experiencing health problems. She had been adopted and was looking for her birth parents. The only thing she knew was the street she grew up on. We looked at the city directory. She found someone who knew her mother, but unfortunately her mother had passed away. She was able to go to the funeral and she met her siblings. I still get goose bumps. Libraries do touch lives.