For the first time in over 60 years, the Librarian of Congress will be an actual, practicing librarian. Not just that, Dr. Carla Hayden will also be the first woman, and the first African-American to assume the role.
Hayden’s appointment by President Obama decidedly signals a new direction for the Library of Congress, and librarians, privacy advocates, and activists have many reasons to be excited.
Hayden joins the LoC after 23 years at the helm of the Enoch Pratt Library system in Baltimore, MD. She has been widely celebrated for moving the 22 branch-system into the digital age by increasing patron access to computers, and expanded e-book holdings just as e-reader technology was emerging. She is probably better known to the librarian community for her leadership of the ALA from 2003-2004, during which she vocally and publicly opposed sections of the USA Patriot Act. Notably, then Attorney General John Ashcroft publicly dismissed the criticism by the ALA and other privacy advocates as “baseless hysteria,” a not-so-veiled sexist jab at a female-dominated and feminized profession. Her advocacy for patron privacy and open information access also earned her recognition as one of Ms. Magazine’s Women of the Year in 2003 and served on the advisory committee for the Digital Public Library of America project in its early years.
Also significant (but severely underreported in mainstream coverage of her appointment) was Hayden’s role in keeping Baltimore public libraries open during the Freddie Gray protests that shook Baltimore last year. In an interview with American Libraries Magazine last year, Hayden discussed her rationale for keeping the libraries open during troubled times:
“I knew that the libraries are community resources. I knew that they are anchors in so many communities. In a lot of communities in Baltimore, especially challenged ones, we are the only resource. If we close, we’re sending a signal that we’re afraid or that we aren’t going to be available when times are tough. We should be open especially when times are tough… You may not be fighting, but you’re in the fight. Recognize that you have to think of yourself as that anchor. Things will follow after that.”
Hayden no doubt inherits a difficult situation, however. The outgoing Librarian of Congress, James Billington, was appointed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan, and faced criticism over his term for failing to keep up with changes in information technology (Billington is infamous for using a fax machine at home to communicate with staff). For example, in 2010, the Library of Congress announced it had partnered with Twitter to acquire and make accessible to researchers the entire Twitter archive. As of this writing, the promised archive has failed to materialize as the LoC struggles with an overwhelming need for infrastructure to support such an ambitious digital project. The LoC was also criticized by a Government Accountability Office report released last year for lacking strong leadership to steward information technology management, underscoring the need for the LoC to match innovative projects with the personnel and organization needed to support them.
The need to modernize and take a leadership role in digitization and access is central to moving the LoC into the digital age. There is much peculation about specific measures that can be taken by Hayden to accomplish this, from granting exemptions under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act for certain types of digital media formats, to reinvigorating digitization and accessibility efforts for existing materials in the LoC’s massive collection. With recent changes to the position under President Obama, Hayden faces a 10-year limit to her term and will be able to lay the groundwork for future initiatives by her exit in 2026.
Personally, I am excited not only by the development of a truly cutting edge LoC under Hayden’s term, but particularly as LIS fields are being forced to confront the homogeneity of the profession and entering students, the appointment of a woman of color as the national librarian will no doubt create a new representation of who a librarian is and the role that libraries can play in the digital age. Hayden’s role in aligning public libraries with support for communities shaken by systemic racial violence is also significant and can more subtly shift the culture of the LoC and the public face of librarianship more generally.