If Carla Hayden had to pick the best part of her job as the country’s chief librarian, exploring the nation’s libraries would definitely be in the running.
As head of the Library of Congress — the first woman and first African American to hold the job — Ms. Hayden wanted to make the library more accessible. It should be the people’s library and not that of highbrow scholars, historians or members of Congress, she believed. Its hidden treasures should be at everyone’s fingertips.
And so she embarked on a national tour of local libraries around the U.S. to spread the word. Marysville Library in Washington. Taylor Community Library in Michigan. The Free Library of Philadelphia where she browsed through a typescript of her favorite childhood book, “Bright April” by Marguerite de Angeli, about a young girl who experiences racial prejudice. She has made her way to 22 states so far, sometimes reading to children, other times armed with books and other goodies she brings with her from Washington, D.C. Always, she gives a plug for the Library of Congress.
“It has been great meeting people from across the county — veterans, children, librarians and so many others,” Ms. Hayden said. “We have really been working to get the Library of Congress on people’s radars.”
She’s also deployed other innovative outreach techniques, including using three 18-wheelers as traveling exhibits, and prioritized digitizing the library’s collections.
Ms. Hayden knows how to build excitement about libraries. Just look at her stint as CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library from 1993 to 2016.
“She not only improved the institution, but excited people about the library,” said Kurt Schmoke, who was Baltimore mayor when Ms. Hayden was hired. He called Ms. Hayden a skilled negotiator who “ignited great interest in getting people to engage in library programs.”
Former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski praised Ms. Hayden’s turnaround of the Enoch Pratt during confirmation hearings for her Library of Congress courtship.
“Enoch Pratt was not only a great repository, it had to be modernized,” Ms. Mikulski said. “And that is where she showed not only that she was a great librarian, but that she was a superb manager. She guided through a fundraising effort to improve the annex. She made sure that what she did also was to digitize the library, and then find a way, in very tight budget conditions, to take the library throughout Baltimore and even throughout this state.”
It wasn’t an easy task. Ms. Hayden had to make unpopular decisions such as closing library branches amid declining funding from the city. She doesn’t shy away from difficult situations.
“One of the things about tough decisions is sometimes they have been delayed because they are tough. And there is sometimes uncertainty,” Ms. Hayden said. “You just have to get as much information as you can and surround yourself with good people and knowledgeable people, and you make the best decision that you can.'
It wouldn’t be the last time Ms. Hayden prepared for a fight. She led the charge by librarians against the Patriot Act of 2001, a federal law that forced public libraries to hand over patrons’ records to the FBI. She believed it gave law enforcement “unprecedented powers of surveillance” with little “judicial oversight.”
Ms. Hayden calls herself an “accidental librarian” who loved books before she could read, but didn’t initially set out to become a librarian, let alone the country’s librarian-in-chief. Jobs were hard to come by when she graduated with degrees in political science and history. Then a friend suggested she apply for jobs under a program for people with no library background. Thus began her library career. (She would later get a master’s and Ph.D. from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.)
Before coming to Baltimore Ms. Hayden served as deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library from 1991 to 1993.
Sen. Ben Cardin didn’t think twice about voting to confirm Ms. Hayden to the Library of Congress post.
“She did things for the Pratt Library that were generational changing,” he said. “She inspired a new vision of what a library could mean to the community. She was committed to making sure that underserved communities would be served by the library.”
When unrest hit Baltimore streets after the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, shops shuttered, but Ms. Hayden kept the libraries open in a show of commitment to the city.
And just because her work is now based in Washington, D.C., doesn’t mean Ms. Hayden has left Baltimore behind. Even though she came to Baltimore for the library, she grew to love the city and still calls it home. She and her mother both live in Cross Keys, where her home is filled with stacks of books she is reading — a true bibliophile.
It is not lost on Ms. Hayden that she has broken racial barriers at the Library of Congress when there was a time “people like me weren’t allowed to read” and were punished if caught doing so. Not everyone likes their job, but Ms. Hayden can say she truly loves hers.
“I think it is a wonderful time to be as we call ourselves, the original search engines,” Ms. Hayden said. “We can help people find information they need to make their lives better. Find health information, the latest books or novels by their favorite author, introduce them to someone new. "
Hometown: Tallahassee, Florida
Current residence: Baltimore
Education: South Shore High School; Roosevelt University; and Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago
Civic and charitable activities: Board of trustees member ex officio, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; ex officio commission member, U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission; ex officio board of directors, White House Historical Association; president of the American Library Association (2003-2004)