A Librarian and a Scholar: University grants honorary degree to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden
The event was Commencement, but somehow it seemed more like a homecoming. At its 2019 ceremony, the University of Illinois bestowed a Doctor of Humane Letters degree on Carla Hayden, the 14th person to serve as Librarian of Congress and only the third trained librarian to hold that position.
For the University, the day provided a unique opportunity to honor a person whose profession ties closely with one of the campus’s greatest assets.
For John Wilkin, UI Dean of Libraries, the moment offered a chance to nominate and welcome the acclaimed leader of the largest library in the world.
And for Hayden, the pleasure proved twofold: an occasion to be recognized professionally by an institution that houses one of the great libraries in the nation, as well a time to savor connections with local family.
“I know we do not have royalty in this country,” said Chancellor Robert J. Jones during the celebratory weekend, “but at a university likes ours, where the University Library is the revered heart and soul of the institution, I believe the Librarian of Congress comes as close to royalty as we will ever get.”
Hayden’s appointment to her current position is remarkable in several ways. Since the establishment in 1800 of the Library of Congress—the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S.—a mere handful of its leaders have held academic backgrounds in the library field. (Hayden received her master’s and doctoral degrees in library science from the University of Chicago.) In addition, she is the first woman and first African American to serve in the post, to which she was appointed in 2016.
Of the three notable hallmarks, “the most important … professionally is the fact that I am a librarian by training,” Hayden said in a recent interview with Friendscript. As she interacts with people considering the library profession, she said she finds that her accomplishments as a woman serve as a sign of encouragement; and as a person of color, her achievements reflect a “personal aspect because people that look like me were denied the right to read for so many years—by law.”
“What’s interesting about Carla is that [as the Librarian of Congress] she is a scholar, and at the same time, she really is a librarian,” Wilkin said. With a professional career that has included stints at the Chicago Public Library, the [Chicago] Museum of Science and Industry, the University of Pittsburgh, and Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, Hayden “is a librarian through and through,” Wilkin said. He believes she will advocate for issues that libraries stand for, “like intellectual freedom and the role that libraries can play.”
And her past history is proof of that. Hayden strongly believes in libraries as community sites, and was well known for keeping the Baltimore libraries open as gathering places during city disturbances in 2015. She likes to refer to libraries as “opportunity centers,” fiercely defended privacy rights as former head of the American Library Association, and remains passionately committed to equity of access to information.
That access remains a primary challenge, in Hayden’s eyes, for today’s libraries as they struggle to provide the technology that links people to information. The secondary challenge, she said, is offering the personnel to help users find the most accurate information they need—or, as Hayden paraphrased a T-shirt slogan, the librarians who function as the “original search engines.”
The vigor and enthusiasm Hayden has brought to her career remain evident at the Library of Congress, where she works to improve access to its sprawling collection (171 million items) and broaden its exhibits and public programming initiatives. Hayden is the first Librarian of Congress with a Twitter account (https://twitter.com/libnofcongress), of which she said, “it’s relatable, it’s free, and it’s an effective way to get the word out.” Hayden uses it to announce events and invite people to join her on the “treasure hunt” of uncovering the vast holdings the Library of Congress embraces.
Hayden’s first encounter with a library of grand scale took place in Springfield, where she summered as a child with her paternal grandparents, who introduced her to the Illinois State Library. From there, it was a short jaunt to Champaign, where Hayden’s mother had grown up, to visit her maternal relatives. Some of them attended the Urbana campus; others worked in University food service or actively supported education by housing African American students denied housing on campus. “It was something that wasn’t uncommon in the African American community—to view
education as a vehicle for advancement,” Hayden said. “And so we were just examples of that, and it was replicated, and still is, in the African American community.”
“That’s why this University and that region mean so much to me personally,” Hayden said, as she had come to view the campus as an engine of both academics and employment in her family history.
To receive the honorary degree this spring was “very humbling and rewarding,” Hayden said. “The University of Illinois has had a strong commitment to excellent library service, in providing it to faculty and staff, and nurturing future librarians through the library school. That’s why it’s the premier institution in terms of supporting the importance of libraries.”
Hayden once described the Library of Congress as “a place where you can touch history and imagine your future.” For the woman who adored reading Bright April as a young girl, it appears May proved a stellar occasion as well.
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