Susan Page, USA Today
Q: Do you bring a different sensibility or perspective to this job than your all-white, all-male predecessors?
Carla Hayden: I think being a woman in a feminized professional who has seen the leadership of that profession not reflect the fact that 85% of the workforce is female — that will be quite significant for the profession, that the largest library is now being led by a woman.
And the fact that I’m the first African American, that’s somewhat more personal in many ways, because I have for years researched and looked into the relationship of African Americans and literacy, and the fact that for many years in slavery, slaves were forbidden to learn to read and they were punished by whipping and amputations and things like that. And people who were caught teaching slaves to read were also punished. So for an African American to be leading the largest symbol of knowledge in the world is quite momentous and that really touches me.
General Accounting Office report out in March was critical of the Library of Congress’ failure to adopt and participate in some of the digital projects that other libraries have done. Should the Library of Congress do more?
Hayden: Definitely, and with the rapid influence of technology on libraries of all types, of all sizes, it’s critical that the Library of Congress regain its leadership in showing how a library can digitize collections, make things available on line, and also preserve the items as well. ...
Q: For instance, there’s the
Digital Public Library of America, a big project that’s involved the Smithsonian, the National Archives, other big libraries — but not the Library of Congress.
Hayden: I think I can break some news here. My understanding is that the Library of Congress is in negotiation to become a partner for the Digital Public Library of America. ... Some of the items from the Library of Congress are already available, but to be a full partner would be a significant step and so I can’t wait to be the librarian that signs that paper.
Q: You were president of the
American Library Association in 2003-2004 and a leader in pressing concerns about provisions of the USA Patriot Act that enlarged the government’s ability to get library records in secret. Why did you think that was important?
Hayden: That was a time when everyone was concerned about national security, and what the library community was concerned about was that we make sure there was a balance with security and with personal freedom to know — that you could have an interest in a topic and no intend to do anything. People wanted to know about jihad, they wanted to know what was going on. And we just wanted to make sure that people had a right to know, and that that right couldn’t be infringed upon.
Q: The stereotype of librarians, as you say, is that they’re meek and mild, but you’re saying that the reality of librarians is that they see themselves as protectors of constitutional rights.
Hayden: Yes, and they are very concerned that people are given the freedom to use materials and make their own decisions. They’re very concerned about censorship, that ... as we say sometimes, the books should battle it out on the shelves. So you should be able to read one thing and then read another thing, and there should be no infringement on your right to do that.
Q: You were CEO of the
Enoch Pratt Free Library system in Baltimore, and during the unrest that followed Freddie Gray’s death last year, the schools shut down; there was a state of emergency. But you kept the libraries open. Why?
Hayden: In Baltimore, that particular library that was at the epicenter has been a community opportunity center. And we knew that people would look to the library that next day to be open. We wanted to also show that we weren’t closing our doors when people needed us the most. And sure enough, 10 o’clock the next morning, people were there to get on those computers, to file job applications. Children were out of school and needed a place to go. And then we became actually a distribution center for food and supplies, because there was nothing else open in that community.
Q: You are now the nation’s top librarian. What’s your favorite book?
Hayden: My favorite book goes back to childhood, Bright April, by
Marguerite de Angeli. She was a wonderful illustrator-author who did a series of books right after the war to promote cultural understanding about children from different cultures. She did an Amish girl; she did a Polish girl. And she did a young African American girl, Bright April. ...
Years later, as a children’s librarian, I realized children need to see themselves reflected in books. Books can be mirrors, and they can be windows.
Q: The Heritage Foundation’s political arm opposed your confirmation and accused you of ‘radical librarian-ism.’ Do you embrace that?
Hayden: I embrace as a librarian being thought of as part of a profession that has strong beliefs and is willing to stand up for those beliefs.