First Woman Sworn In As Librarian Of Congress

Sep 18, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this week, Carla Hayden was sworn in as our Librarian of Congress. She is only the 14th person to hold the office, and she is the first woman and the first African-American to be appointed to that post. Most recently, she served as CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, but she got her start working as a children's librarian in the 1970s at the Chicago Public Library. We joined her recently in her office at the Library of Congress where she talked about the influence of her parents, who were both musicians.

CARLA HAYDEN: Just like they could read music notes, I connected with text. I loved words and when I'd learned to read, it was like something clicked in my brain. And so I could look at text and hear words just like they could look at notes and hear music.

MARTIN: I was curious about what it means to her to be a first, to break these barriers.

HAYDEN: I started out in librarianship, and I was a children's librarian and then I realized - and it was very evident - that the top management of most libraries was male. And so to be the first female Librarian of Congress speaks to what Melvil Dewey said when he started the Library Association in 1876 and decided that women might be good for the profession because - and I love this quote - they had a high tolerance for pain and monotonous work and that it was time to let women into the profession of librarianship because there was a lot of work to be done. And so to be a female heading up the largest library in the world, I think Mr. Dewey might have something to say about that.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Tell me, though, at this point in our history, what is the Library of Congress for? I mean, what is a library for? I mean, it used to be that libraries were for people who couldn't have private libraries. It opened up the opportunity to access books and knowledge for people who otherwise would not have had access to them. I mean, many people will have stories about how a library was their lifeline. I know it certainly was one of those places for me, like a place of sanctuary, a place that really opened up the world. Now we're in a world in which you could carry a library - and I'm holding up my phone - you could carry a library in your phone, in your pocket. So what's a library for now?

HAYDEN: The library now is even more of a sanctuary and even an opportunity center for so many people. And I've been very heartened by the - and I don't want to get into too many statistics - but the fact that public libraries are used at record numbers now. It's the physical space. It's the people that are available for you. We call librarians the original search engines because there is so much information, and you can get a lot of things at your fingertips.

But what you don't get is that guide on the side, a person who can help you negotiate and think about things, who will help you with this information superhighway, which can be very confusing. And people are wanting to be with other people, too. In fact, a lot of libraries have to create quiet rooms.

MARTIN: You will be the first term-limited Librarian of Congress. You have a 10-year term just like the FBI director, and that is being interpreted as a signal from the Congress that your predecessor perhaps was here too long or that he was here for 28 years - that it's a signal that perhaps there needs to be change in this job in part because of the influence of technology.

HAYDEN: Technology has really accelerated a lot of activity in libraries all over. And so in 10 years, there's a lot that can be accomplished, and there's a lot that might develop. And so to be able to digitize and have the collections digitized of the Library of Congress, there are 162 million items in the collection. These are some unique items. For instance, the collection of Rosa Parks has just been digitized. So you have the little Bible that she carried in that iconic purse, and that's now online. You see her handwritten notes explaining what she felt after she was arrested.

To have the collections like that from the Library of Congress all digitized - and it would be a wonderful thing to have all of this - Abraham Lincoln's life mask is part of the collection, the contents of his pocket the night he died, Charlie Mingus' recordings - all of these types of things. Think about that - the world's largest library that's been preserved and cared for. There are curators that have been here for 46 years caring for these materials.

MARTIN: What's keeping you up at night in this new position?

HAYDEN: That 162 million items. But I think what's also keeping me up is a little excitement and thinking about the possibilities. So just when I say, oh, I need that extra mocha in the morning, I get a little energized. And I'm going to start tweeting and using my discovery of those 162 million items and tweeting out what I'm discovering so that America can discover with me. So that will be quite an adventure for all of us I hope.

MARTIN: That was Carla Hayden, who was just sworn into a 10-year term as the Librarian of Congress. We joined her in her office in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.