Somewhere in the backyard of Debbie Jan’s home, in Richmond, an old, stone-bordered plant bed sits lonely and barren.

Years ago, when Jan had more free time, the bed teemed with life and vegetables galore. In an alternate universe — one in which Jan chose a less demanding passion — perhaps it still does.

Over the past 25 years, the garden of Jan’s life has, instead, been the UC Berkeley Library — the beautifully entwined, vigorous space that has been her home since she was an undergraduate.

For nearly 14 years, from 2001 to 2015, Jan served at the helm of the Public Health Library (now part of the Bioscience, Natural Resources & Public Health Library). There, she sowed seeds of trust and collaboration among staff; tended a diverse and growing collection; and showered researchers, faculty, and students alike with streams of information and guidance.

This year, in honor of her “excellence in librarianship,” the Librarians Association of the University of California’s Berkeley chapter, or LAUC-B, has recognized Jan with the Distinguished Librarian Award. She shares the award, presented every other year, with Elizabeth Dupuis, associate university librarian for educational initiatives and user services, and director of the Doe, Moffitt, and subject specialty libraries.

The heartfelt letters nominating Jan for the award overflow with praise and superlative. But Jan — the ever humble, cheerful gardener — never imagined she would win.

“I couldn’t believe it!” she said, bursting in laughter. “I was like, ‘Really? No, are you sure?’”

“It was such a surprise,” she continued. “And such an honor.”

Nowadays, Jan is busy settling into her new office, where orchids and elephant ear leaves hang over her desk, and plush gray carpet meets her bare feet. In July, Jan took on a new role as a librarian in the Optometry and Health Sciences Library, in Minor Hall. There, fresh soil awaits.

Coming full circle

As an undergraduate student, Jan studied molecular biology. Toward the end of her studies, though, she came to the realization that “being in an isolated lab was not for me.”

At the time, she had been working in the campus’s Education/Psychology Library, which was housed in Tolman Hall.

“I started there, and then I became a student supervisor, where I was scheduling all the other students’ work shifts,” Jan said. “And I really kind of liked that.”

(Jan says this with a chuckle; in fact, much of what she says spills from the edge of a smile.)

Upon graduating, Jan got a job as a library assistant in the Public Health Library and enrolled in UC Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies.

After library school, Jan landed her first professional job at the Engineering Library. She stayed there almost a year before moving to the Public Health Library, then known as PUBL.

Of those early years in librarianship, Jan remembers one thing in particular: the trust and responsibility her supervisors gave her, inspiring her to explore and grow. As a leader, she tried to emulate that with her staff at PUBL.

Monica Singh, who worked at PUBL for about 10 years, said in her nomination letter that Jan’s efforts to support and uplift the staff created a “collaborative spirit that became a hallmark of PUBL.” Jan kept an open door to all of the staff members’ concerns, Singh said, and actively provided staff with chances to learn new skills.

According to Jan, one of her most important duties as head of PUBL was to make sure the entire team was trained in the wide gamut of library responsibilities — from reference consultation and classroom instruction to collection maintenance and visual displays. That way, she said, the team would be impervious in times of stress or hardship.

“One of the beautiful things about the Public Health Library was that we all kind of felt like we could help each other out in any way,” Jan said. “If, for some reason, somebody felt overwhelmed, they were not alone — other people could help step in.”

Leveling the playing field

For Jan, librarian mentorship goes hand in hand with other issues in the field, such as the recruitment and retention of librarians from underrepresented communities.

As chair of LAUC-B’s Committee on Diversity, Jan helped build a mentorship program for new staff members, designed to help staff develop professionally and consider a career in librarianship. The program is still in place today, and Jan currently has one mentee. In addition, Jan serves as a mentor to two librarian colleagues.

In fact, it is Jan’s interest in communities and social equality that has inspired her lifelong dedication to the field of public health. In her view, public health is more of a social science than a scientific one, and it unites a unique set of disciplines to address the health needs of all communities.

“Public health touches every area, from health care economics to behavioral health to music therapy,” she said. “It reaches everybody.”

And, in some ways, so does optometry, noted Jan. While most people think of optometry as a clinical topic, she said, vision and eye care relate directly to health and income. An eye exam can catch a body’s disease early, she said, but not everyone has the insurance or money needed to afford such tests.

“Even though you don’t think about it that way, cultural competencies, inequalities, bias, it all comes into play,” she said. “Who can have services, who can afford it, and who can’t?

“Vision is one of those things that’s really critical to most people,” she continued. “It’s important to be able to take care of that and make sure people have access to care.”

Something so much bigger than ourselves

While Jan gave up science back in college, she has, in fact, played a crucial role in research that has impacted the health of communities across California.

Until this year, PUBL had, for many decades, worked closely with researchers at several state agencies, including the California Department of Public Health, or CDPH, and the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA.

When the state Legislature considered a health policy, Jan explained, lawmakers would turn to the CDPH and other agencies for guidance. In turn, those agencies consulted the library. Through contracts with the agencies, staff at PUBL would provide researchers with everything from reference consultation to literature searches.

After California passed Proposition 65, which requires the state to publish a running list of hazardous chemicals, Jan and PUBL staff helped state agencies dive into the scientific literature to come up with the official list. (That proposition, by the way, is where the “known to the State of California to cause cancer” warning labels originated.)

“Regardless of the obscurity or rarity of the source of needed information, Ms. Jan unfailingly obtained it for (our research team) using skillful librarianship,” said Stephen Arnon, a scientist at CDPH who studies the rare disease infant botulism, in his nomination letter. “Her capabilities blossomed with time and experience, such that no arcane request or need ever daunted or defeated her.”

He added that the constant flow of information between PUBL and his research program was the foundation of much of the team’s success.

“We all were really lucky to be able to contribute in that way — to contribute to something so much bigger than ourselves,” Jan said of PUBL’s work with the health agencies.

On top of that specialized research, Jan also established an instruction program for CDPH. Once a month, staff from PUBL would teach researchers from CDPH about the online databases and resources available and the art of literature review.

For Jan, teaching is one of the joys of her career. Throughout much of her time at Berkeley, Jan has concurrently taught courses on library research and information literacy at the Contra Costa Community College District and Infopeople, a group that provides continuing education for library staff.

She saves that work for evenings and weekends, she said.

“One of the first characteristics that describes Debbie is her generosity,” said Marlon Maus, an adjunct professor in the School of Public Health, in a nomination letter for Jan. “She is always willing to help students, faculty and staff in support of education and research.

“Both in terms of time and knowledge, she is one of the most giving people we have the opportunity to work with.”

A garden anew

One day a week, on Fridays, you can still find Jan bustling around the School of Public Health, where she provides drop-in reference consultations to anyone who needs it. She also spends part of the day at the Bioscience, Natural Resources & Public Health Library, where the collections welcome her like an old friend.

It has been nice to keep in touch with the school and the library since her move to optometry, Jan said. After laying down her roots in public health so long ago, after all, it’s not so easy to leave.

These days, Jan muses — now that she’s no longer head of an entire library — she may just get back to that garden bed of hers.

But with the mysteries of optometry and a crop of new students awaiting, it’s hard to say.

“Knowing that you can help somebody and you can impact their life and you can put them in the right direction is so fulfilling,” Jan said. “I’ve always loved that most of all.”