Back in September of 2016, a pretty neat bit of history was made in the library world. The Library of Congress swore in its first ever African American into the role of Librarian of Congress. The appointment was significant for a few other reasons as well; to understand why, you’ll need a quick history lesson!
The Library of Congress (LOC) was created back in 1800 by President John Adams. Originally described to contain “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress”, the library went through many design and collection changes before it resembled the one we know today. Throughout its tenure, the library has been dutifully led by the Librarian of Congress, a position appointed by the President of the United States. Until recently, this was a lifetime appointment, but President Obama signed a law capping this at 10 years following the retirement of the previous Librarian of Congress, John Billington. There have been 13 Librarians of Congress prior to 2016; in its 216 years of existence however, the LOC has never had a woman or an African American in charge.
Enter Dr. Carla Hayden. Prior to her appointment to Librarian of Congress, Dr. Hayden headed the Baltimore Public Library system, and was also a former president of the American Library Association. This is notable in its own right due to the fact that, remarkably, most of the previous Librarians of Congress weren’t even librarians. To date, the role has been filled by scholars or writers, and a few historians, but there have only ever been 2 Masters degree-carrying professional librarians in the position until now. Dr. Hayden holds a PhD in library science from the University of Chicago.
One of her chief initiatives is to bring the LOC into the 21st century, which includes making much of the library’s massive collection available online. Her past work in Baltimore has prepared her for this type of project, as she’s previously led digitization efforts and paved the way for many other libraries to begin adopting new technologies and means to deliver information in ways that don’t require library users to set foot in the physical building. This will help to ensure that the information housed inside the LOC is available to everyone.
Dr. Hayden’s appointment is significant for a number of reasons, but one that sticks out out to me is the idea of representation. To start, it’s interesting to consider that in a profession where most of the workforce has been historically overwhelmingly female, a woman is only just now stepping into the role of leading the highest level of that profession. This may bring a different perspective to how library professionals evolve over the next few years and is a good opportunity to make sure the voices and concerns of those working in the field are heard as the library as an institution moves in new directions.
Further, with respect to the history of literacy among African Americans, this appointment is particularly significant. For many years throughout the history of slavery in the US, it was not uncommon for slaves to be forbidden to learn to read and many were often punished for doing so. Even now, national assessments examining students at the 4th and 8th grade level suggest that African American students often have lower proficiency in reading than their other peers (a fact likely rooted in a number of social, environmental, and political factors, but that’s a discussion for another day). Librarians like Dr. Hayden have made it their mission to reach these and other youths, instilling in them the spirit of inquiry and desire to learn which can be acquired through a love of reading. Her appointment can go a long way towards encouraging young African American girls and boys to unabashedly pursue fields they are not typically asked to consider or thought to be interested in. Take this little librarian for instance:
It was fun to have 4-year-old Daliyah Marie Arana of Gainesville, GA as “Librarian For The Day.” She’s already read more than a 1,000 books. pic.twitter.com/MQfwlUrakO
— Carla Hayden (@LibnOfCongress) January 11, 2017
Due to her enthusiasm for reading, Daliyah’s mother decided to reach out to the LOC to see if they could visit her daughter’s favorite library in the world, and they happily invited her out to spend the day there. During her visit, Daliyah even made some suggestions for improvement to the children’s section of the library. More visible representation equals more opportunities for moments like this. I know I personally love seeing pictures of Dr. Hayden doing what she loves day in and day out – seeing her where she’s at now makes me very proud to be a librarian.
Cheers to Dr. Hayden! We hope her tenure as Librarian of Congress is as productive as it is inspiring.