Librarian of Congress Nominee No Stranger to Historic Moments

Carla Hayden's ALA colleagues reflect on her accomplishments

March 7, 2016

Screenshot from video introduction to Carla Hayden on the White House Facebook page
Screenshot from the video introduction to Carla Hayden on the White House Facebook page.

April 20: Coverage of Carla Hayden’s confirmation hearings for Librarian of Congress will air live on beginning at 2:15 p.m. ET.  

President Obama announced his intention to nominate Carla Hayden, CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, as the 14th Librarian of Congress on February 24.

“If confirmed, Dr. Hayden would be the first woman and the first African American to hold the position—both of which are long overdue,” said President Obama in announcing his intent to nominate Hayden.

Hayden would also be the first professional librarian to serve in the post since Lawrence Mumford’s retirement in 1974, a fact that helped to build enthusiasm for her nomination. “The talents and attributes of an excellent librarian can help shape the library to address the needs of the American people,” says ALA Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff.

Hayden has been a prominent figure in many critical library issues through her career. She was elected ALA President in 2002, shortly after the passage of the USA Patriot Act.  During her year as president-elect and her 2003–2004 presidency, Hayden was a vocal opponent of the Patriot Act, and one of ALA’s most prominent spokespeople against the Section 215 provisions allowing the Justice Department and the FBI to access library user records. In doing so, she attracted the attention of Attorney General John Ashcroft. During a speaking tour to build support for the law, he accused her and the ALA of fueling “baseless hysteria.”

“He was so roundly criticized for that, because in any town he went to, people believed their local librarian,” Sheketoff says. Ultimately, he called Hayden to apologize for the remarks. “Carla was very gracious, but she made her point that the reason he was so unsuccessful was that people trust that their librarians have their interests at heart,” Sheketoff says.

Hayden and equity of access

Equity of access was another subject of particular concern to Hayden, and she made it and diversity the themes of her ALA presidency. “She helped expand equity of access to everybody,” says Satia Orange, former director of ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS), now the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services. “We had been talking about traditionally underserved populations, but she said that every library should be making sure that every person in the community could have access to information in a variety of ways.”

ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels says Hayden’s influence helped shape how the Association as a whole addressed equity of access. ALA’s first strategic plan created key action areas and position papers for each. “Developing a position paper on equity of access was difficult because it was such an elusive topic,” he says. “She really brought the Office for Information Technology Policy and OLOS together to start working on a more integrated approach to the concept of equity of access.” Hayden helped to ensure that equity of access included literacy, service to homeless and underserved populations, adequate broadband capacity, bookmobiles, service to people with disabilities, and reducing the digital divide.

Hayden was also a strong supporter of OLOS’s publication of From Outreach to Equity: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice, which highlighted how librarians in all types and sizes of libraries were delivering services to all populations. “I loved the idea that you could work in a rural library or bookmobile and write an article that ALA would publish in a book,” Orange says. Hayden collaborated with the OLOS advisory committee and wrote the foreword to the book.

More recently, Hayden attracted significant attention for her leadership during the unrest in Baltimore in 2015 after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody. Enoch Pratt’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch was located at the epicenter of the protests, and several businesses across the street were burned. Hayden kept it and all of the library’s branches open as a haven, resource, and anchor for the community.

“She had a great story that on the second day of the protest, a gentleman came into the library asking for help applying for a job online,” Sheketoff says. He received the assistance he needed, and a few weeks later came in to tell staff that he had gotten the job. “That’s typical of how she is,” Sheketoff said. “Her concern is [for] what is right for the community.”

“In a lot of communities in Baltimore, especially challenged ones, we are the only resource,” Hayden said in an AL interview at the time. “If we close, we’re sending a signal that we’re afraid or that we aren’t going to be available when times are tough. We should be open especially when times are tough.”

“I think she’ll be a terrific messenger, not only in the United States but to the whole world,” Sheketoff says. “The US is a leader in the kinds of services that libraries offer communities, and she’ll be great at showing the world that libraries are the place you go for what you need, no matter what you need.”

Related articles

Obama to Nominate Carla Hayden for Librarian of Congress

Libraries Respond to Community Needs in Times of Crisis

Baltimore’s Library Stays Open During Unrest: Q&A with CEO Carla Hayden

Broad Public, Library and Educational Sector Support of Hayden Nomination (ALA letter)

Pratt Director Carla Hayden Elected ALA President (2002)

Ashcroft Says FBI Hasn’t Used Patriot Act Library Provision, Mocks ALA (2003)