“Librarians Are More Freedom Fighters Than Shushers”: Carla Hayden

Carla Hayden, 2003 (Record Series 13/6/15, Box 4)

In a career that spans state and government agencies, Carla Hayden has always fought for the people who need library resources the most and championed their right to have equal access to these resources, free of any government intervention. In a June 2003 news release announcing Hayden’s tenure as ALA President, Hayden stated that, “Equity of access is not only one of the basic tenets of our profession but it encompasses all of our basic and pressing contemporary concerns as well. We need to recommit ourselves to the ideal of providing equal access to everyone, anywhere, anytime and in any format, particularly those groups who are already underserved.” [1]

After receiving both her Masters and Doctoral Library Science degrees from University of Chicago, Hayden was the Library Services Coordinator at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, an assistant professor of Library Science at University of Pittsburgh, and Deputy Commissioner and Chief Librarian at Chicago Public Library until she became Executive Director of Enoch Pratt Free Library (EPFL) in Baltimore (1993). She held that role until becoming Librarian of Congress in 2016. During her tenure at EPFL, she was also President of ALA from 2003-2004 – the second African American woman  to be elected. As a member of ALA, she has also served as Chair of both the Committee on Accreditation and the Spectrum Initiative, whose goal it is to recruit applicants and provide scholarships for Library Science graduate students from underrepresented groups in the field.

During her time as ALA President, Hayden focused on issues of equity of access and championing patron privacy. In remarks made at the 2004 American Library in Paris meeting, Hayden defines ‘equity of access’ as, “when all people have access to all library services and all types of library materials, no matter their age, ethnicity, physical ability, income, language, geographic location or type of library.” During the same speech, Hayden spoke strongly about the importance of privacy, stating, “privacy cannot be taken for granted, nor can we allow ourselves to become complacent in defense of people’s right to read without the interference of the government.” [2]

One of Hayden’s main crusades on the privacy front was coming up against the Patriot Act, which gives the United States government unparalleled access to private citizen information – including library records. In a Ms. Magazine profile, Hayden said that, “We serve the underserved. When libraries fight against the Patriot Act, or against mandatory Internet filters, we’re fighting for the public…What the library does is protect the rights of all people to fully and freely access information and to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.” [3] Her efforts eventually convinced Attorney General John Ashcroft to declassify information about law enforcement’s requests for library records – a step in the right direction, but not the law change Hayden found necessary to ensure the free exchange of knowledge that is a cornerstone of librarianship.

Hayden believes in a community-centered, service-focused library that is attentive to its users’ needs. In an article in The New Yorker, Hayden remembers being drawn to the word “serve” when called upon by the Obama administration to be Librarian of Congress. “With the Baltimore experience, you really were almost touching the people who were benefiting from the work of the library. And I had to think about, how can I make this library that relevant, and that immediate?” [4] During the 2015 protests surrounding the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, Hayden chose to keep all branches of EPFL open, including the branch located in the middle of the chaos, which became a place for refuge, information, comfort, and food during the unrest. The decision seemed natural to Hayden. “It wasn’t even a choice—you didn’t really think about should you or shouldn’t you. It’s just like, ‘Yeah—that’s what we do. That community, like so many communities across the country, depends on the library.” [4] This example of instinctual leadership makes her an exciting and inspiring Librarian of Congress.

Hayden is the first woman and the first African American to lead the Library of Congress, and the first librarian to lead since 1974. In a swearing-in speech, she reflected on the poignancy of the moment, saying, “as a descendant of people who were denied the right to read, to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment.” [4] Her candidacy was strongly supported on social media through a #Hayden4LOC campaign, along with immense support from over 140 organizations and institutions, the ALA, and every state library association. The pull this support had on the confirmation process shows how much power lies in focused advocacy – a trait Hayden has exemplified throughout her career.

Hayden grew up between two different libraries – the Illinois State Library where she would accompany her grandfather as he delivered correspondence between government buildings, and the public library branch in Jamaica, Queens near her school (P.S. 196) – and her experiences with them shaped what she believed a library should be and what the future of the Library of Congress could look like. Her early experiences with libraries were, “all about being comfortable with being around books, being around stacks, feeling free to be around them”, and she wants to get the Library of Congress to a place where, “there’ll still be a specialness, but not an exclusiveness. It should feel very special because it is very special, but it should be very familiar.” [4]

[1] News Release, 2003. Carla Hayden leads American Library Association, Record Series 12/1/4, Box 2, Folder: Biographical Information 2001-2003. American Library Association Archives.

[2] Remarks, 2004. American Library in Paris Annual Meeting, Record Series 2/4/14, Box 2, Folder: Hayden, Carla Correspondence 2003-2004. American Library Association Archives.

[3] “Carla Diane Hayden,” Ms. Magazine, vol. 13, no. 4 (Winter 2003/2004), p. 45.

[4] “The Librarian of Congress and the Greatness of Humility,” The New Yorker, February 19, 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/sarah-larson/the-librarian-of-congress-and-the-greatness-of-humility.