Celebrating Dr. Carla Hayden – The First Black Woman To Be Appointed Librarian Of Congress

By Valerie Brett Shaindlin

With most of the United States’ public institutions currently being undermined from within, the public – especially younger people – seem to be paying attention like never before (as we should be). Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson, and countless others have suddenly become household names, as common as Selena Gomez or Millie Bobby Brown. With many people’s lives and rights at stake, holding public officials accountable is crucial.

We seem to know who is at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, the FBI, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and we know the mission of those institutions. But an equally-important name has been absent from the national conversation: Do you know who your Librarian of Congress is? Dr. Carla Hayden, the first actual librarian to serve as Librarian of Congress in over 6 decades, is also the first-ever woman and first-ever non-white person to hold the prestigious position, in the library’s 217-year history.

Considering that the 45th President of the United States has the most white and male cabinet since Ronald Reagan, it’s especially exciting that we currently have arguably the most qualified and experienced Librarian of Congress to date, who also happens to be an African-American woman.

Appointed by President Obama and confirmed by Congress last year, September 14th marks Dr. Hayden’s one-year anniversary as the 14th Librarian of Congress. Librarians of Congress serve ten-year terms, so her position will presumably continue under the current administration.

In her first year’s tenure, Dr. Hayden has seemingly had fun in her new role: she invited the precocious and adorable 4-year-old Daliyah Arana to be “Librarian for a day,” and she’s been interviewed in plenty of podcasts and newspapers. However, she has not been afraid to tackle serious issues, as well.

Dr. Hayden removed Maria Pallante from the role of Register of Copyrights (she actually offered Pallante a new role, which she refused). This was a controversial move because copyright is a pressing issue (especially with the proliferation of free online content) and Pallante had close ties in the entertainment industry. Supporters of Pallante saw her as an ally and advocate for creatives; detractors viewed her as more invested in corporate interests than the public interest.

The Copyright Office is a federal department within the Library of Congress that administers the complex set of rules governing U.S. copyrights. It also advises Congress on policy and legal issues. Like the Librarian of Congress, the Register of Copyrights serves a 10-year term. Pallante (who had only been in her post since 2011) felt that the Copyright Office ought to be its own entity, rather than under the purview of the Library of Congress.

However, many argue that the Office of Copyright ought to continue to be overseen by the Library of Congress so that corporate interests don’t win undue influence.

While the 43rd and 44th Presidents were both avid and outspoken readers, it has yet to be confirmed whether the 45th President is concerned with the role of the Library or Librarian of Congress. The Library of Congress’s 2017 National Book Festival (held on Sept 2nd) was chaired by David M. Rubenstein, CEO of Carlyle Group; the festival was founded by FLOTUS Laura Bush in 2001, and this is the first year ever that it is not chaired by the President and First Lady.

Despite POTUS 45 not yet taking an active role in the Library of Congress, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 1695 in April, which would strip Dr. Hayden of the responsibility of appointing the new Register of Copyright (a position that would still be under the supervision of the LOC).

This apparent fear that Dr. Hayden is not capable of choosing the next Register of Copyrights is unfounded. Dr. Hayden has extensive experience: she previously served as the President of the American Library Association (ALA) and CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Other posts include deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library; assistant professor for Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh; library services coordinator for the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago; and young adult services coordinator, library associate and children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library. Hayden received her B.A. from Roosevelt University and M.A. and Ph.D. from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.

During her tenure in Baltimore, Dr. Hayden notably kept a library branch open in the middle of the protests over Freddie Gray’s death. With ample education and decades of public experience, she intimately understands the value of libraries as anchors of communities. Unlike other public officials currently serving, Dr. Hayden has hands-on experience in the field that allows her to empathize with individuals and communities, and brings both a micro and macro perspective to her work.

While libraries may be misguidedly considered by some to be relics of the past, they are not only still crucial spaces and services to society, but in fact are arguably more important than ever. With more information out there, and all of it more available than ever before in the history of humanity, librarians have never been more necessary to help organize information and facilitate access.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. Each day, it receives roughly 15,000 items and adds approximately 12,000 items to the collections. Materials come in over 470 different languages and rare and unique materials are abundant.

With many fearing for their personal rights and the overall future of our country under an unqualified, openly sexist and racist President, it’s comforting to know that a highly-qualified woman is at the helm of the nation’s library. However, her critical position is also fragile. Net Neutrality, copyright law, and social justice are just a few of the complex threats and opportunities we face in the information age.

As more people and companies prioritizing their own interests creep into these common spaces, the public has a lot to lose. Access to information (and privacy while doing so) is the library’s mission. Industry has already infiltrated the EPA, the DOE, and the State Department, and the public must insist the same does not happen to our national library. Knowledge is power; it is the foundation of democracy.

While Dr. Hayden will certainly face challenges and make mistakes, as anyone would, having an educated, experienced and passionate person at the helm of our national library is invaluable. More than 160 million items (from books, to photographs, to artifacts) are housed in the Library of Congress. Our shared cultural knowledge and heritage deserves to be stewarded by a capable professional.




Valerie Brett Shaindlin is a writer, yoga teacher and Library & Information Science (LIS) masters student in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is particularly interested in the intersection of LIS and feminism. In her free time she can be found hiking, traveling and reading. She is on social media as @ValerieBrett and online at ValerieBrett.com.





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