The U.S. Library of Congress (LC) isn’t exactly what I’d describe as a national library—at least, not in terms of providing the kinds of services the public has come to expect from their local libraries. But make no mistake, the next librarian of Congress has the opportunity to provide something we desperately need: a national voice on library issues. And Carla Hayden, President Barack Obama’s nominee to become the next librarian of Congress, is exactly the right woman for the job.
Currently the CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, Hayden has had a stellar career so far, including stints at the Chicago Public Library and as a president of the American Library Association (ALA). If confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first professional librarian to lead the LC on a full-time basis in more than 40 years, succeeding James Billington, who retired last September, at the age of 86, amid a chorus of criticism.
Billington’s long tenure was not without its highlights, of course. Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, Billington proved to be a deft fund-raiser. And under his leadership, in 1995, LC launched Thomas.gov, which put federal legislative information online. But over the past decade, LC came under increasing attack for mismanagement and technological blundering. A 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified widespread information-technology weaknesses at the library, for example. And in a New York Times article last June, Joel C. Willemssen, the author of that GAO report, pointed the finger squarely at Billington. “There wasn’t anybody running the ship with the necessary skills,” Willemssen told reporters.
As many of Billington’s critics—including former Harvard University librarian Robert Darnton—have pointed out, LC did indeed stay on the sidelines over the past decade, when it should have been a leader in support of digital libraries. During Hayden’s confirmation hearing last month, Sen. Roy Blunt acknowledged as much, observing that the library is “struggling, really, to adapt to a new century.”
Blunt is right. Just look at the LC’s World Digital Library, a collection of 13,000 images, maps, and manuscripts (but few books) that is so meager as to be puzzling. (Just 468 items representing Africa? Really?) LC has also been notably absent from the nascent Digital Public Library of America, a cooperative library platform that provides access to a range of digital collections—an initiative that Hayden helped to plan.
One could argue that any good CEO could take on LC’s problems. And yes, Obama could have plucked a retiring technocrat from Silicon Valley, or a university president, respected scholar, or a well-known author to lead LC. Instead, he chose a librarian, who, in his words, “has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture.” Which is exactly right.
As an experienced library leader, Hayden has an enormous advantage. Inheriting troubled institutions and fixing them is what talented library managers do. Although LC’s scale and mission are unique and can be intimidating (it includes departments such as the Congressional Research Service and the Copyright Office), LC still shares much of the same DNA with other kinds of libraries—there are technical services, acquisitions, public services, programming, preservation, information technology, and so on. And on day one, Hayden will arrive at LC knowing what all the library’s many pieces mean, and how to assess how these pieces are working—or not working—together.
With her broad experience (she has worked as a children’s and young adult librarian in Chicago, and has managed a great urban library system in Baltimore), Hayden is well equipped to naturally reposition LC as not just a research library, but a library in service to the American people, extending our complex cultural heritage beyond the walls of the Jefferson Building. And the fact that Hayden would be both the first African-American and the first woman to serve as librarian of Congress signals inclusiveness and makes it clear who belongs in the library as user, library worker, and leader. The importance of that message cannot be overstated.
Hayden has also proven that she’s not afraid of tough issues. Back in 2004, as ALA president, she famously took on Attorney General John Ashcroft over the Patriot Act, specifically Section 215, which allowed the government to access the records of library users without subpoenas. Let’s hope that some of her bravery also extends to copyright policy.
Finally, Hayden’s nomination makes clear what should be obvious but is too often questioned: that librarians can lead the organizations they’ve created, and served in. If the president of the United States can find a librarian to run the largest and most complex library in the world, then your local library board can do the same when it comes time to hire its leaders.
Despite the tough political environment, there is increasing optimism that Hayden is one Obama appointee who may actually be confirmed. Her hearing before a Senate committee last month was respectful, and relatively conflict free. And she has garnered wide support, despite the suspicions of the content industries, whose litmus test appears to be a reactionary interpretation of copyright and fair use.
In the digital age, libraries are constantly changing, often to the delight (and sometimes confusion) of the communities they serve. It is time for LC to change as well. It is time for LC to better embrace technology, and to become a model for digital libraries throughout the world. Carla Hayden will be a strong asset both in leading that change, and in communicating the need for change to legislators, to funders, to the media, and, most importantly, to the American public.