Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th librarian of Congress in September. She is the first woman and the first African-American to attain that post. She’s also the first credentialed librarian to fill the post since Lawrence Quincy Mumford, who retired in 1974.
Hayden began her professional career as a children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library and, in addition to holding several other positions, served a lengthy term as chief executive at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library before accepting her new appointment. Hayden shared her thoughts on her new job, technological advances in the library world, and her role in the LOC’s legacy.
You are a pioneer in at least a couple of ways—the first woman and the first African-American to hold your current position. In your view, does a certain kind of pressure come with being first, and if so, do you feel that pressure?
It’s actually more excitement than pressure. My being in this position has certainly touched a large number of people. Quite a few young girls have sent me letters, and one of them, a high school student, said, “I was thinking of becoming a lawyer, but now I want to become a librarian.” As a person of color I have worked for a long time on the ALA’s Spectrum initiative, which was created to recruit underrepresented groups into librarianship. So you could kind of call me a role model. I think my being here is definitely a recruiting tool.
Since you’ve arrived in your new position, what LOC collections have you seen that have especially thrilled you?
Almost every day I see something new and amazing, and I use Twitter to let people explore with me and discover what the library has to offer. Since I saw the collection of comic books, I really got into Luke Cage. We have first editions of almost every comic book character; it’s really something. Also, the Rosa Parks collection—to be able to touch history and see her handwritten thoughts on her arrest, and the Bible that she carried in that iconic purse. Vincent Price, the actor known for his spooky movies, wrote a cookbook, and we have drafts of that. It’s one of the largest collections of cookbooks in the world.
We also have military documents—General Pershing’s diaries from WWI, and the memo granting permission for the bombing of Hiroshima during WWII. George Gershwin’s draft of “Summertime” where you can see his handwritten changes to the lyrics. The collections are sublime, thought-provoking, and fun.
Some of your earliest professional-librarian experience was as a children’s librarian. How has that experience informed your work along the way?
You never stop being a children’s librarian at heart. I go to the Young Readers Center several times a month to tell stories and to meet with children’s book authors who come in for events. We’re working on a possible renovation of that space, and I have an advisory committee in place to help with that. It’s another way of opening up what I call this treasure chest, America’s library, to make it even more inviting to young people.
What are some of the ways that the Library of Congress is embracing new technologies? Very clearly, technology has changed how we create, share, and preserve information. What is your vision for capitalizing on technologies in the future?
Obviously digitization and making the collections available to the public is one of the main things. We’ve recently redesigned our Web home page. It’s more engaging; the collections arrive on the page sooner and in a more graphic way. We are going to have more traveling exhibitions and more online/virtual exhibitions, and I’ve just hired a new exhibit coordinator. We’re using many more engagement tools and building a bigger social media presence. We will increase our in-person programming with everything from story times to concerts. We are opening up the treasure chest as much as possible so that people everywhere—in rural areas, on reservations, in cities—can access our collections.
We also serve young people and others with disabilities through our National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I want to make sure that our services for them are as modern as possible.
What do you want young readers/students to know about the Library of Congress? How does the LOC benefit them?
Whatever they’re studying—not just students in school, but lifelong learners as well—they can explore our website and bring up whatever the library has on that topic. There are so many ways to connect, including our Ask a Librarian feature. I want them to know that this is their library, too.
What initiatives for children and children’s librarians might be planned?
With the potential enhancement of the Young Readers Center we hope to develop more creative spaces where young people can participate in programming. We plan to have more interactive exchanges and programming with our national ambassador for young people’s literature, Gene Luen Yang, who does such wonderful graphic novels, and we continue to support his “Reading Without Walls” campaign. And we also want to do more with our U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, who has done really wonderful work with teens. At a renovated YRC we’ll be able to have kids in, use Skype for events, and do more programming.
In the same vein, how does LOC reach out to students and teachers? Are there ways for schools to take more advantage of LOC resources?
We have a teacher-in-residence program that provides teachers with an opportunity to work with our staff to create K–12 curricular tie-ins with our digitized primary resources. We will be expanding that program and broadening its reach.
In September, we worked with Discovery Education for Constitution Day, and did a virtual tour and had our curators and librarians live tweet during the program. We have a special site for teachers, our educators’ page. And we bring in teachers, physically, for programming. We make available primary-source class sets for iPads designed for classroom use. And we have an educational-outreach division that works closely with teachers and connects with them on social media.
You have instituted some recent changes to the U.S. Copyright Office. Can you share your vision or some of your goals for reshaping that office?
I want to make it clear. The register resigned. [On October 21, Hayden appointed Maria Pallante as senior advisor for digital strategy; Pallante had been serving as register of copyrights since 2011. She resigned on October 24, declining the reassignment.] I made no changes involving the copyright process or anything like that. We are several weeks out from asking for input from the copyright community as we begin a search for a new permanent register. In my role, I have the opportunity to make sure that they have the tools they need in the copyright office to do their work.
We have already seen many photo ops with you, where you are out in the community meeting with lots of people. What are your favorite types of meet and greets?
I have favorites, plural. I love the opportunities to visit with different types of people and different communities who use the LOC. The Library has so many facets. I can meet with people who are interested in cartography and maps, or military history, or Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or George Gershwin, and saw Smokey Robinson play an original Gershwin score on the Gershwin piano. [On November 16, Robinson received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and performed at a star-studded concert during the ceremonies.]
Our staff are experts and I want people to know that the LOC is something to be explored, and I want them to get excited about it. This job is like having a birthday all the time, with presents every day, and you don’t get older!
Looking ahead, what is your vision for moving the LOC forward? Where do you want to take it?
I want to keep it going in the direction of collecting resources for people to learn and do scholarship—and I use that term in its broadest sense. I want us to keep growing with the best tools and the best human resources to do that. I want to continue the legacy of making knowledge and information available to all. And we hope the American people join us on this journey. Stay tuned.