Can Carla Hayden, the First Female, African-American, and Professional Librarian, Turn the Library of Congress Around?

Carla Hayden holds a pamphlet promoting early literacy as she talks to reporters on Feb. 25, 2004, during the Public Library Association's 10th National Conference in Seattle.
Carla Hayden holds a pamphlet promoting early literacy as she talks to reporters on Feb. 25, 2004, during the Public Library Association’s 10th National Conference in Seattle.

The world’s largest library is in need of a new vision. 

Last month President Barack Obama nominated Carla Hayden to be the next librarian of congress with the hope that she’ll lead the Library of Congress into the digital age. If confirmed, she’ll bring her philosophy of democratized access to information to the post, and take steps to establish a technologically nimble organization that serves not just lawmakers and donors, but all Americans.

“There are a lot of people who could do the job, but you need to make it about the fact that the library belongs to everyone,” said Jessamyn West, who was involved in the selection process and served in the American Library Association when Hayden was its president in 2003.

Hayden, 63, was the chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library system, is a past president of the American Library Association and is the current CEO of the innovative Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Hayden would be the first woman, the first black person, and the first professional librarian to run the library.
“Dr. Hayden has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture,” Obama said in a statement on February 24.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 162 million items in its collection. Since its founding in 1800 there have only been 13 librarians of congress, most of them politicians or academics.

The most recent librarian, James Billington, retired from the post in 2015 after serving for 28 years. Librarians and technologists saw the opening as an opportunity to remake the position.

Billington was liked by academics and led some successful early online projects in the 1990s, including a push to put congressional legislation online, but was not known for being up-to-date on tech himself – he infamously used a fax machine to communicate with co-workers from his home. Innovation stalled as the library’s IT departments became underfunded and understaffed. Last year a power outage took down the Copyright Office’s website for over a week, making it impossible for applicants to file forms online.

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released a scathing report last year, which found that “the library has lacked consistent, effective leadership for its IT efforts.”

Carla Hayden was not available for comment, but former colleagues say they think she’ll be able to advance the [Office1] They also say she’ll help open the library’s collections and be a public face for the Library of Congress, not just on Capitol Hill, but in libraries across the country.

“I’m just ecstatic,” said Kelvin Watson, the president of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association who’s known Hayden for more than 20 years. [Office2]

As head of the Enoch Free Pratt library, Hayden increased access to computers and e-readers. She was on the advisory committee of the innovative Digital Public Library of America project. She also kept the Baltimore public libraries open during the protests that took place after the death of Freddie Gray, understanding the unique role libraries can play in their communities.

Dan Cohen, the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, said that Hayden understands larger issues around ethics “and her overall sense of mission.”

“She’s been a tremendous advocate for maximal access to what libraries bring and that really democratic access to our shared culture,” said Cohen.

Though the Library of Congress is active on social media, Hayden could undertake efforts to engage with the public at a deeper level[Office3] create tools for app developers to work with the library’s resources and improve relations between the Library of Congress and local libraries across the country. The overall goal would be to make the Library of Congress more relevant to the general public — not just to people who can visit the library’s physical holdings on Capitol Hill. She could reprioritize the Library of Congress’ budget and focus on improving the IT infrastructure the GAO found sorely lacking.

Making Library of Congress materials more accessible is not just a matter of generating publicity. “What the library does is protect the rights of all people to fully and freely access information and to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion,” Hayden said in a 2003 interview with Ms. Magazine, after she stood up to Attorney General John Ashcroft in opposition to the Patriot Act, which gave the FBI access to library records without a warrant. Then the president of the American Library Association, Hayden led librarians across the country in protest. Ashcroft ultimately called Hayden personally and apologized.

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Source: US News & World Report |  Alex Duner