President Obama today announced Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, as his nominee to become the 14th Librarian of Congress. The selection comes after months of speculation, following the January retirement of James Billington, a Reagan appointee who took the post in 1987. If approved by the Senate, Hayden will replace associate director David Mao, who is currently serving as the the library’s interim director.
In a statement, the appointment of Hayden was hailed by officials at the American Library Association, who had urged the president to appoint a professional librarian to the post—in fact, there hasn’t been a professional librarian leading the Library of Congress on a full-time basis since Lawrence Quincy Mumford retired in 1954. The White House reportedly approached author Walter Isaacson about the job last year (who declined).
“The President could not have made a better choice,” said ALA president Sari Feldman, who called Hayden “uniquely positioned” to lead the Library of Congress. “We look forward to working closely with her to further librarians’ bedrock principle that all Americans everywhere deserve and must have equitable access to the information that they need to succeed and lead productive lives in the digital age.”
Hayden, who served as president of ALA from 2003 to 2004, would be the first woman and first African American Librarian of Congress. In 2010, she was nominated by Obama to be a member of the National Museum and Library Services Board. And 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.
Last year, Hayden was in the news as the nation was captivated by dramatic images of unrest in Baltimore, after Freddie Gray was killed in police custody, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch was at the epicenter of the protests. Through days of discord, the library stayed open, serving the community with services and a safe haven.
If confirmed, Hayden will step into a job that will be under intense scrutiny. Since Billington's retirement announcement last year, the Library of Congress has been publicly criticized for falling behind in the digital age.
In a blistering June 10 article in the New York Times, former University of Michigan librarian Paul Courant said that, in terms of technology, “the library has basically been a bust.” And former Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton (who had even called for Billington’s resignation at one point) observed that Billington “just sat on the sidelines while the digital revolution took place.”
Hayden will also be the first Librarian of Congress to be term-limited. Last fall, president Obama signed a law dictating a 10-year term limit to the office. Although historically there hasn’t been a defined term for the position, over the years it had evolved into a lifetime appointment—there have only been 13 librarians of Congress since the library was chartered in 1802, and only six since 1900.
In addition, among many political issues simmering in the digital information age, Hayden may have to deal with a proposal made last year by two lawmakers to remove the Copyright Office from under the purview of the Library of Congress, and to establish it as an independent agency.
The AAP (Association of American Publishers) applauded the discussion draft, calling it “the critical first step towards crafting legislation to equip the Copyright Office with the tools and authority necessary to realize the full potential of copyright and creativity in the digital age.” The ALA opposed the proposal.
In a statement, AAP officials suggested the copyright issue could be critical. While acknowledging Hayden’s "long and distinguished leadership," AAP neither supported nor opposed her nomination.
"The publishing community, which has historically contributed so many of its works to the Library’s collections through the deposit requirements of the Copyright Act, looks forward to the Senate confirmation process where we hope to learn more about Dr. Hayden’s views on the future of the Library," the statement reads, "and, unsurprisingly, on the importance of copyright and the need to modernize the Copyright Office."
Correction: Walter Isaacson was approached about the Librarian of Congress position, not offered the job.