Leading the Library Congress into the digital age
In the words of Barack Obama, recently appointed Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden ‘has devoted her career to modernising libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture’.
Ahead of her keynote at the CILIP conference, Dr Hayden talked to Information Professional about librarians as activists and the tensions between privacy, security and equitable access.
When Carla Hayden was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress in September last year she made history – not once, but twice.
She became the first woman and the first African American to hold the post. Surprisingly, she is only the third qualified librarian to hold the post in the Library of Congress’s 216-year history. Not bad for a woman who describes herself as an ‘accidental librarian’.
Dr Hayden, who will be delivering the opening keynote at this year’s CILIP Conference in Manchester, says she fell into the profession after graduating from Roosevelt University in Chicago. Having majored in political science and history, she was trying to decide on her next step.
She says: ‘I was looking for employment opportunities and in between interviews I would go to the main library in Chicago. One of my colleagues who had just graduated with me was there and said “Hey, are you here for the library job? They are hiring people with undergrad degrees.”
Because I was a lifelong reader, and because one of the reasons I was in the library is because it was a sanctuary for me, I decided to go upstairs and fill out an application.’
That decision set Dr Hayden on the course that would eventually lead her to become head of one of the most respected and well-known libraries in the world. She says that at the time she had never considered librarianship as a career – mainly because she did not realise anyone could have a career in libraries. However, her first posting was with Judith Zucker, who Dr Hayden readily admits had a powerful influence on her career. Dr Hayden said: ‘I was assigned to a small store-front library on the south side in a challenged neighbourhood. I was assigned to a lady who was going to a graduate library school and she really inspired me. I didn’t even know there was a graduate programme or much about librarianship as a profession.
‘I was hooked. She was inspiring – what she was doing with children with autism, bringing information to a community – and it is community empowerment that has been a focus of my library work ever since.’
Nomination for the role
Dr Hayden’s own experiences in the public library service have been similarly inspiring to many of the people she has met and helped. Among her admirers are Barack and Michelle Obama – clearly demonstrated by President Obama’s decision to nominate her for the role of Librarian of Congress. The Obamas have known Dr Hayden since the 1970s, when she began her library career in Chicago Public Library Service and later at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
When President Obama nominated Dr Hayden in February of last year, he said: ‘Michelle and I have known Carla Hayden for a long time, since her days working at the Chicago Public Library, and I am proud to nominate her to lead our nation’s oldest federal institution as our 14th Librarian of Congress. Hayden has devoted her career to modernising libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture. She has the proven experience, dedication, and deep knowledge of our nation’s libraries to serve our country well and that’s why I look forward to working with her in the months ahead... Hayden would be the first woman and the first African American to hold the position – both of which are long overdue.’
Her nomination to the post was welcomed in a letter of support signed by more than 140 library, educational and academic organisations in the US. Dr Hayden describes her appointment as ‘a great honour’ and believes her experience in delivering change and ‘bringing information and resources to the public was probably the key reason for my appointment’.
Driven by equity of access
Dr Hayden’s determination to ensure equity of access to information has been an ever-present tenet of her career. As Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, she oversaw a programme of renewal, ensuring citizens would have access to resources and information. Dr Hayden worked hard to ensure local communities were involved and felt connected to library services, which were delivered through a network of 22 co-operative
She said that her time in Baltimore was ‘the most immediate and impactful part of my career because it was a really challenged city. I was there for almost 23 years so I had a chance to really learn about the communities, the neighbourhoods and the people and had an opportunity to work with everyone who made the library more relevant. When I first got there everyone I met said: “The library helped me in my life.”
‘It was truly an honour to think about how I could work to ensure people 30 or 40 years in the future could say the same thing. That was a guiding principle for our staff.’
She oversaw a building and renovation programme that delivered new facilities, including a $112m revamp of the co-operative’s central branch. While the buildings received some much-needed work, Dr Hayden also made sure that services kept pace – providing computers, fibre internet connections and a focus on services for school children. The ultimate aim was to reach every corner of the local community, making sure information was freely available to all.
Librarians as activists
As President of the American Library Association from 2003 to 2004, she became a vocal opponent of government spying on its citizens. The Patriot Act gave the US law enforcement agencies widespread powers to snoop on people’s digital activity – including accessing library records. Dr Hayden’s opposition of the Patriot Act, arguing that there needed to be a balance between privacy and security, saw her named as Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year in 2003.
Dr Hayden says that her activism as a librarian reflects the everyday activism of the profession – something that has been a mainstay of librarianship for years.
‘I’m of an age where I remember being part of a wave of community information specialists in the 70s when there were librarians who were incredibly active,’ says Dr Hayden. ‘Professor E.J. Josey was a major proponent of activist librarianship and reaching out to neighbourhoods. In the 1970s it was big, in the 1960s activism was a big part of it. Between the wars librarians did quite a bit of social work and helping people. Even in the late 1800s there was activism going on in nation building. Activism has been part of the profession for a while. It’s interesting when you take that long view of the profession.’
Library and collections
When taking that long view of the profession, there are few libraries in the US that can match the Library of Congress. At 216 years old, it may not be the oldest in the country, but it is certainly the largest. It was created in 1800 by an act of congress when President John Adams signed a bill that paved the way for government to move from Philadelphia to Washington. That outlined the plans for the creation of a reference library for the use of Congress.
It has had three homes in its time – the first was burnt and ransacked by British troops in 1814 during the War of 1812. The second was replaced in 1897 with the iconic Thomas Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill where the library remains to this day.
Despite the grandeur of the building itself, the real value of the library is held within its collections. And it is here that Dr Hayden will have her biggest challenge. The library is the largest in the world and contains more than 160 million items, including some 69 million manuscripts and over 36 million books and other printed materials. It has the largest collection of legal materials, films, maps, sheet music and recordings in the world and the largest collection of rare books in North America.
Digitisation and access
Digitisation has been ongoing since 1990, however less that 10 per cent of the collection has been converted in this time. Dr Hayden says: ‘The most visible way to open up access at the Library of Congress is to continue the digitisation process and make those collections more widely available and using technology.’
Creating digital collections that are more readily accessible to the general public is just one strand of Dr Hayden’s strategy for the library’s collection. Marketing and outreach will also be important and Dr Hayden will be looking to strengthen and create new partnerships with public libraries and the teaching profession. There is also talk of re-instating an 18-wheeler truck that can be used for traveling exhibitions as well as live performances and better of use of space within the library itself. In fact Dr Hayden admits to casting an admiring eye towards the British Library and its programme of events. She has already hosted BL Chief Executive Roly Keating and the favour will be returned when Dr Hayden visits the UK in the summer for the CILIP Conference.
The BL and Library of Congress both act as their respective national libraries and as such they each have a role to play in legal deposit – or mandatory deposit, as it is known in the US. In the case of the LoC that means almost 10,000 items are lodged daily. And while not all of those items are retained, it is not hard to see how the library’s collection has grown to be one of the most important in the world. Researchers from all academic spheres can make use of the library and its own classification system has been widely adopted by research and university libraries in the US.
Role in US government
As the name suggests, the Library has a special place in US government. It was founded for Members of Congress and it still has an important role to play in answering queries for members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), with an annual budget of around $100m, writes reports and handles direct requests for information from members, committees and their staff. The CRC is a legislative branch of the Library of Congress and employs around 600 staff including lawyers, economists, scientists and of course librarians. The LoC as a whole employs more than 3,000 people.
Dr Hayden says one of her abiding memories of her swearing in ceremony was the welcome she received from LoC Staff. She said: ‘The real honour is working with the staff members, the curators and the librarians. They are experts in their field and dedicated to what they do. I have this sense of pride to be working with these librarians.