Carla Hayden Blazes Trail as First Woman, First African American Librarian of Congress

At a historic ceremony on September 14 library leaders from around the country, Washington elected officials, Library of Congress (LC) staff, friends, family, and a cheering section of former employees crowded into the Great Hall of LC’s Thomas Jefferson Building to see Dr. Carla Hayden sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress. Hayden, former CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) in Baltimore, is the first woman and the first African American to serve in the role—and only the third practicing librarian.
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L-R: Chief Justice John Roberts, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Colleen Hayden, Carla Hayden

At a historic ceremony on September 14 library leaders from around the country, Washington elected officials, Library of Congress (LC) staff, friends, family, and a cheering section of former employees crowded into the Great Hall of LC’s Thomas Jefferson Building to see Dr. Carla Hayden sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress. Hayden, former CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) in Baltimore, is the first woman and the first African American to serve in the role—and only the third practicing librarian. President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate Hayden in February, months after her decision to keep EPFL open during the 2015 protests, making the library a haven for Baltimore residents during troubled times and a symbol of her dedication to the community. Hayden’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration in April showed strong bipartisan support, and her nomination was confirmed in July by a Senate majority vote of 74–18. She succeeds scholar James Billington, who held the position from 1987 until his resignation in September 2015, and will serve a renewable ten-year term.

SOLEMN AND CELEBRATORY

The swearing-in ceremony was both solemn and celebratory, with an emphasis throughout on LC’s longstanding mandate to make its collections available to the public, and the promise of 21st-century accessibility and innovation represented by Hayden’s appointment. Billington came under fire during his last years for LC’s lack of technological currency and consistent oversight, and the library has been criticized for its lack of digitization initiatives. Hayden sees access for all to LC’s collections as a crucial part of her role. In his introduction, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration and of the Joint Committee on the Library, noted that Hayden is taking the helm at a time when “there is more information, more accessible, in more ways than any of her predecessors would have dreamed possible when they took this assignment.” With Hayden’s mother, Colleen Hayden, holding the Bible that Presidents Lincoln and Obama used to take their oaths of office, Chief Justice John Roberts administered Hayden’s oath, and the roomful of her supporters stood and erupted in applause. After an enthusiastic, Baltimore-centric testimonial from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)—one of Hayden’s earliest advocates for the role of Librarian of Congress—Hayden took the stage and spoke eloquently on her journey and her vision, as well as the historical firsts of her appointment. “Library pioneer Melvil Dewey often encouraged women to enter the profession because they can ‘bear pain’ and could ‘perform monotonous tasks without boredom,’” she said. “But also, and most poignantly, people of my race were once punished with lashes and worse for learning to read.” As a descendant of people who were denied that right, Hayden continued, “to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is the national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment.”

“BUILDING ON A LEGACY”

Hayden received her B.A. from Roosevelt University in Chicago and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago. She has worked in public, academic, and special libraries, including her first stint as a children’s librarian at a storefront branch of the Chicago Public Library. (A role she’s still not left completely behind, telling LJ after the ceremony that she’s planning to conduct an upcoming storytime for three- and four-year-olds in LC’s Young Reader Center.) In addition to her leadership of EPFL since 1993, Hayden served as president of the American Library Association (ALA) from 2003–04 and on the National Library and Museum Services Board, which advises the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), since 2010. In 1995, she was LJ’s Librarian of the Year. Hayden thanked family, friends, and coworkers—many of whom filled the mezzanine balconies of the Great Hall to cheer her on—as well as Congress, for building the library more than two hundred years ago and for its current support. “I appreciate seeing so many of you here today, from both houses and both parties,” Hayden said. “This Library is your library, and its service to Congress remains the core function of the institution.” She also acknowledged Billington, who was in attendance, and LC staff, in particular Deputy Librarian of Congress David Mao. Hayden addressed her hopes for the future of LC’s collections as well. She spoke of her feelings on viewing LC’s recently acquired Rosa Parks Collection, which includes the Bible Parks carried in her purse and her correspondence, such as a letter written upon her arrest in 1955. Hayden imagined an audience for these handwritten letters, now digitized—“the classrooms of Racine, Wisconsin, in a small library on a reservation in New Mexico, and even in the library of a young girl in Baltimore, looking around as her city is in turmoil. That is a real public service. And a natural step for this nation’s library, a place where you can touch history and imagine your future.” This will be accomplished, Hayden went on, “by building on a legacy that depends so much on the people in this room.” She spoke of her dedication to public service, and added, “We can’t do it alone. I am calling on you, both who are here in person and watching virtually, that to have a truly national library, an institution of opportunity for all, is the responsibility of all.”

MOVING FORWARD

The prevailing sentiment of the day was one of confidence in Hayden’s leadership and great hopes for LC’s future. “Dr. Hayden personifies the modern librarian: informed, articulate and committed,” said ALA president Julie Todaro in a statement. “She will provide the leadership that the Library’s highly qualified staff needs to manage their world-class collection, which she has rightly called a ‘national treasure.’ Throughout her career, Dr. Hayden has been a champion for information equality, privacy and freedom of thought and speech. Like all librarians, she is committed to the bedrock principle that all Americans everywhere deserve equitable access to the information that they need to succeed and lead productive lives in the digital age.” In his introduction of Hayden at the ceremony, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) added that, as head of EFPL for 23 years, “She’s a pro. She knows what she’s doing,” and commended her understanding of what will be necessary to bring LC into the digital age. Hayden plans to keep the public informed of LC’s plans, and has already opened a new Twitter account, @LibnofCongress, which at press time had already garnered nearly 8,000 followers in a single day. She also hopes to do some gardening on the terrace outside her office, she told the Washington Post. At the moment Hayden is settling into her new offices and meeting with her new staff to learn more about their concerns and aspirations, and appreciating the encouragement she has gotten from all sectors. “I really want to thank the library community for their strong and vocal support,” Hayden told LJ after the ceremony. “It was impressive to the legislators and it meant so much to me personally. It helped quite a bit: it demonstrated that all facets of the library community, [including] users, really supported this institution.” “When they hear from their constituents that the Library of Congress helps them,” she added, “it really resonates.” Save Save Save Save

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