Leading the Nation’s Library Into the Future

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By Steve Zalusky

Today’s libraries are changing to fulfill the needs of a digital society.  This is no less true for the nation’s oldest cultural institution, the Library of Congress, a fact verified by the confirmation of Dr. Carla Hayden as the 14th librarian of Congress.

Hayden, former president of the American Library Association and director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, is the first female and the first African American to lead the Library of Congress.

She also is the first professional librarian to be confirmed in more than 60 years, a distinction she bears with pride.  “Of all the titles I have had in my professional career, I am most proud to be called a librarian. And it would be my honor to have the opportunity to be the librarian of the oldest cultural institution in the nation, the Library of Congress,” she told senators during her confirmation hearing.

If her stewardship at Enoch Pratt, one of the nation’s oldest free libraries, is any indication, she will expertly helm the Library of Congress as it faces the challenges and opportunities of the 21st Century. In her more than 20 years at the helm of that venerable institution, she modernized the library and recently oversaw the $114 million renovation.

She has also ensured that the library remains a safe haven, even during the tumultuous events surrounding the aftermath of the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody.  While schools and other institutions closed, she kept the library open, offering space for the community and especially children.

As Sen. Ben Carlin of Maryland said during her confirmation hearing, “The libraries in Baltimore have been more than just the traditional libraries. It has been a place in which a community could grow and have confidence and children could go for peace and quiet.”

According to the Library of Congress website, The Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 when President John Adams signed a bill providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington. The legislation described a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress - and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein…"

The Library of Congress is the nation’s oldest established cultural institution. The largest library in the world, it contains a collection amounting to millions of items, ranging from books to film to sound recordings.  Hayden testified that she intends to make the library’s resources more readily available for people online.

“Users will not have to be in Washington, D.C. Everyone will have a sense of ownership and pride in this national treasure. A child on a reservation in New Mexico will have the same access as a high school student in St. Louis, Missouri. A fifth grader in Bowling Green, Kentucky, will be able to view Abraham Lincoln's papers from his home computer, and a shy tenth grader from Meridian, Mississippi with dreams of performing will be able to view the library's Leonard Bernstein collection. A student from a community college in Kansas could look at and even download Revolutionary War maps for class assignment.”

She continued, “And this would help libraries across the country. A small library in Arkansas will be able to help patrons assess primary studies of George Washington's papers. And a rural library in Alabama will be able to connect through a live feed to the national book festival and see and hear their favorite authors.”

Hayden said she especially looks forward to working with Congress to ensure a fully functional U.S. Copyright Office.  She said, “Coming from a family of musicians and artists, I understand the blood, sweat, and soul that goes into the creative process.”

She emphasized the importance of making the new generation of digital natives aware of the sanctity of copyright and what the “C” means.  “It should mean caution, and they should respect the fact that they are looking at something. Whenever they see that "C" that should be almost a red or a yellow light for them, and they should be taught as early as second or third grade.”

Hayden’s odyssey began, she told senators, at a storefront library branch in Queens, where her mother helped her check out “Bright April,” by Marguerite de Angeli, the story of an African American girl growing up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.

She said an encounter with a woman named Judy Zucker at another storefront, this time in Chicago, led her to choose the library profession.  She said, “She was on the floor during story time for children with autism demonstrating the power of a librarian's work.”

After receiving  a B.A. from Roosevelt University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago, Hayden began her career with the Chicago Public Library as a library associate and children’s librarian from 1973 to 1979. From 1979 to 1982, she served as the young adult services coordinator.

She moved to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where she was library services coordinator from 1982 to 1987. She then was an assistant professor for Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1991.

Prior to joining the Pratt Library, she was deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library from 1991 to 1993. 

In 1995, she was the first African American to receive Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year Award in recognition of her outreach services at the Pratt Library, which included an afterschool center for Baltimore teens offering homework assistance and college and career counseling. 

From 2003 to 2004, Hayden served as president of the American Library Association, where she displayed courage as she spoke out against Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act.

During a press conference held in 2004, she articulated her position, stating, “Libraries are one of the building blocks of a free and open society. And when members of the public enter a library, for whatever reason, to pursue their own intellectual interests, to look up something that they just have a curiosity about, or just find out about subjects that they have heard about, no one should be examined or scrutinized by anyone, especially by the government.”

“The PATRIOT Act allows the government easy, very easy, access to activities of library users throughout the country, including their use of computers just to browse the web or even to check their own email. We think that the worst part, though, of the patriot act comes from the veil of secrecy that hides its purpose and the consequences from the public. A secret FISA court approves the orders that FBI agents now need to compel libraries to turn over their records. Librarians are bound by a gag order that prevents them from telling anyone, even their own governmental structures, their own boards, when patrons in their communities are being investigated. The USA Patriot Act seriously undermines not only our civil rights and liberties, but all of the things that we worked so hard for for so many years.”

She said that parts of the act threatened our freedoms.

“As librarians, we are interested in and we are committed to ensuring the safety of our fellow Americans. But it’s time for the government to stop wasting its time on supposed security risks posed by any American that goes into a public library for research, for learning or just for fun. The new and expanded authorities under the Patriot Act allow the federal government to investigate and to engage in surveillance of citizens and others without having to demonstrate any specific reason to believe that they are engaged in illegal activities and to threaten the civil liberties guaranteed under the United States constitution and the Bill of Rights.”

Hayden was first nominated by President Obama to be a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board in January 2010 and was confirmed by the Senate in June 2010.

Her two decades of leadership at Enoch Pratt earned her the 2013 Joseph W. Lippincott Award, which  honors distinguished service to the profession of librarianship. The jury noted that she had restored the library to national prominence, “making it a national leader in providing access to the Internet and to digital collections; her extraordinary success in positioning the Pratt Library as a major and indispensable force in civic, community and municipal affairs; her outstanding service as president of ALA, where she spearheaded efforts to attract and train underrepresented groups to the library profession through the Spectrum Initiative and successfully challenged the government’s attempts, under the Patriot Act, to gain unwarranted access to library records; and her national leadership as a member of the steering committee overseeing creation of the pioneering Digital Public Library of America, and as a presidentially appointed member of the National Museum and Library Services Board.”

Her nominators called her achievements “visionary,” “transformative,” “indispensable” and “legendary.”

After receiving the nomination for Librarian of Congress, Hayden received the support of more than 140 national nonprofit and library groups, schools and academic libraries that summed up their thoughts in a letter to the Senate’s Committee on Rules and Administration.

It stated, “Dr. Hayden deeply understands what a library at its best is and can be for every community of users – young and old, corporate and individual, rich and poor, ‘connected’ or not – in our diverse and complicated country.