America’s Librarian

Carla Hayden plans to continue her career-long focus on access and technology as Librarian of Congress

November 1, 2016

Carla Hayden
Photo: Shawn Miller

Newly sworn-in Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden recently had the opportunity to read Rosa Parks’s handwritten notes reacting to her 1955 arrest. The notes are part of the Rosa Parks collection the Library of Congress (LC) acquired in 2014, which also includes her family Bible and a flash card with the French word for “trousers” that she used as a bookmark.

Hayden didn’t use any privileges of her new position to access Parks’s notes, however, because LC has digitized the collection and posted it online. “I pulled it up on my iPad,” she says. “To think that a kid in Baltimore who just experienced the unrest there could look at Parks’s handwritten thoughts about unrest, that was chilling and incredibly poignant.”

Expanding access to library materials has long been one of Hayden’s professional passions—equity of access was the theme of her 2003­–2004 term as ALA president—and using technology to achieve that is one of her priorities as Librarian of Congress. “At the Library of Congress, with the largest collection in the country, using technology to make sure that more collections are digitized and more materials are available online would be a wonderful way to expand access,” she says.

The Rosa Parks collection is one example of how that work is already underway. “The library has just completed a comprehensive strategic plan, and people are geared to take up a number of issues,” she says. In particular, Hayden has been working with Chief Information Officer Bernard Barton to identify technology needs at the library and the US Copyright Office, a critical need identified by a 2015 Government Accountability Office report. Other priorities include modernizing copyright systems and practices, expanding content and programming to support research and lifelong learning, developing the library’s technology infrastructure, and improving the library’s governance. “I would like to engage the various stakeholders—the library users, Congress, and library community—to connect those strategic initiatives and do a listening tour of sorts.”

Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to Hayden as House Speaker Paul Ryan. looks on. Hayden's mother Colleen. holds the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama used when they were sworn into the presidency.
Chief Justice John Roberts administers the oath of office to Hayden as House Speaker Paul Ryan. looks on. Hayden’s mother Colleen. holds the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama used when they were sworn into the presidency.Photo: Shawn Miller

America’s library, America’s librarian

While LC officially serves the US Congress, its work benefits libraries throughout the country. The National and International Outreach unit, established last May, is one new source of services that Hayden said many librarians may not know about. The office is responsible for public programs that promote literacy and lifelong learning, such as traveling exhibits, the National Book Festival, and the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

That’s in addition to LC’s widely known services, such as those for the nation’s network of libraries for the blind and physically handicapped for each state, and its cataloging. “Those are two that affect and help libraries every day,” Hayden says. In fact, cataloging was her first connection to LC: Part of her first library job was filing LC card sets as a children’s librarian at Chicago Public Library, starting in 1973.

After receiving her MLS from the University of Chicago, Hayden was library services coordinator at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry from 1982 to 1987. That’s an experience she believes will be valuable as Librarian of Congress. “There was a combination of scholarship, working with curators for exhibit preparation, and working with educators to open the first public access library in an institution of that nature,” she says.

After the Museum of Science and Industry, Hayden became assistant professor of library science at the University of Pittsburgh. “That was a time when the school was one of the first to have a robust information technology program for undergrads, and corporate support of information technology and information science programs,” she says. That helped Hayden understand the information science element of librarianship and how to combine the two.

She returned to Chicago Public Library as deputy commissioner and chief librarian in 1991. Two years later, however,
she became executive director of Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) in Baltimore, a position she held until becoming Librarian of Congress.

As a descendant of people who were denied the right to read, to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment. –Carla Hayden

“That experience will help me take part in almost rebooting an institution that has so much to offer,” Hayden says. Like LC today, EPFL at the time was “iconic,” as she described it, with collections dating back 500 years in its role as Maryland’s state library. But EPFL also faced serious challenges including budgetary problems, aging buildings, and out-of-date technology and outreach services. Staff members were open to change but also had fond memories of the traditional idea of what a library should be. Modernization required embracing new ideas and understanding the changing expectations of the library’s users as a base for making hard decisions that might go against those fondly remembered traditions—an experience Hayden believes will translate well to LC’s current challenges.

“At different times in the library’s history, the people who have served as Librarian of Congress—scholars, librarians, lawyers—have each brought different skills,” she says. “As a librarian, I might have experiences to bring as the library faces a new part of its history, and a lot of that has to do with technology and accessibility.”

Hayden is the first woman and the first African American to serve as Librarian of Congress. She acknowledged the historic nature of her role during her swearing-in ceremony September 14. In her remarks, she addressed how African Americans could be lashed or worse for learning to read. “As a descendant of people who were denied the right to read, to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment,” she declared. She also noted wryly that Melvil Dewey encouraged women to become librarians for reasons (such as their ability to bear pain and perform monotonous tasks without boredom) now known to be both absurd and demeaning.

Hayden speaks at the Ms. 2003 Women of the Year event at the National Press Club. ALA
Hayden speaks at the Ms. 2003 Women of the Year event at the National Press Club. Photo: ALA

Leadership through the years

Hayden has long been a prominent figure in librarianship and has made her mark on several of the profession’s most pressing issues. As ALA president, she was a vocal opponent of the Patriot Act and the Section 215 provisions allowing the Justice Department and the FBI to access library user records. She also spoke against the 2000 Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which required libraries to install filters to block pornography, on the grounds that those filters could also block legitimate material.

In 2015, Hayden attracted attention for keeping all of EPFL’s branches open as a haven, resource, and anchor for the community during the unrest in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody. That included the library’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch, which is located at the center of the protests and across the street from several businesses that were burned. “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,” she said in an AL interview at the time.

Hayden has received a long list of honors, both within the library world and outside of it. In 2013, she won ALA’s Joseph W. Lippincott Award for distinguished service to the profession of librarianship. Specific work recognized by this award included leadership of EPFL, her work to recruit librarians from underrepresented groups through the Spectrum Initiative, and her leadership in creating the Digital Public Library of America. She has twice delivered the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services’ Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture, and she was named Librarian of the Year by Library Journal in 1995.

Ms. magazine named her one of its Women of the Year in 2003 in recognition of her work against the Patriot Act, while Fortune named her one of the World’s Greatest Leaders this year. She is also a recipient of the DuBois Circle of Baltimore’s Legacy of Literacy Award; the President’s Medal from Johns Hopkins University; the Andrew White Medal from Loyola College; and honorary doctorates from the University of Baltimore, Morgan State University, and McDaniel College.

Hayden hangs a sign in the window of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she was CEO during the unrest in Baltimore in April 2015.Courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library
Hayden hangs a sign in the window of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where she was CEO during the unrest in Baltimore in April 2015.Photo: Courtesy Enoch Pratt Free Library

From Baltimore to D.C.

How does someone become Librarian of Congress? Despite having a history with President Obama—she became friends with the Obamas during her time in Chicago—the process really began with the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM). That office cast a wide net to seek and vet candidates for the position. In fact, Hayden had been one of the nominators. “It was quite a moment when I turned from consultant into candidate,” she says.

President Obama formally nominated Hayden from OPM’s list of finalists on February 24. Given Congress’s attitude toward other presidential nominees in the final year of Obama’s term, however, there was some concern that her nomination would never even be considered.

“That’s where the goodwill of the library community came in,” Hayden says. “I felt almost like Switzerland,” in that her nomination did not face major partisan opposition. Instead, most of the legislators Hayden met with shared stories about their local and state librarians at home and the librarians from their childhood.

Hayden’s CIPA position did lead some Republican senators to block her confirmation for several weeks. Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, both Maryland Democrats, eventually brokered a deal to allow the confirmation vote, which happened July 13.

The library community supported her candidacy strongly. More than 140 national and regional organizations, educational institutions, and academic libraries—including ALA and every state library association—submitted a letter urging her confirmation. Individual librarians also showed their support in a variety of ways, including the #Hayden4LOC social media campaign.

“I’d like to say thank you in as many ways as I can,” Hayden says. “The support from librarians showed the power of the community, and it made all the difference in the world.”

Hayden also urged librarians to maintain and build on the goodwill that the library community has with elected officials through continued advocacy and letting representatives know the ways that libraries work for their communities. Her relatively smooth confirmation process shows that advocacy can work. “It’s very powerful, sitting in Washington, D.C., and realizing that the voice of the people and library groups actually means a lot,” she says.