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The Library of Congress Appoints History-Making New Leader

Dr. Carla Hayden is the first-ever woman, African American, and active internet user to get the job

This week, history was made when Dr. Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore’s library system, was confirmed by the Senate as the first woman and first African American Librarian of Congress, a position that, until now, has solely been held by white men.

Hayden’s appointment has overwhelmingly been met with praise and touted as long overdue. But it’s significant for a lot of reasons beyond those that are symbolic in nature. The position of Librarian of Congress is one of incredible power and scope, most notably because the individual in the role oversees the U.S. Copyright Office, ultimately deciding what is and is not considered a copyright violation. In addition, Hayden’s staff of thousands will follow her leadership in the preservation and continued acquisition of a vast array of texts, documents, and oral recordings in over 450 languages.

Hayden will be the first Librarian of Congress appointed during the internet age. Her predecessor, James Billington, was appointed during the Reagan administration, and frequently criticized for what was perceived as reluctance to usher America’s library online. In 2000, he stated, “It is dangerous to promote the illusion that you can get anything you want by sitting in front of a computer screen.” A decade and a half later, he still preferred faxing to emails.

Over the next 10 years of her appointment, Hayden will have the unique distinction of developing a robust agenda to adapt technology in innovative ways for present and future generations. She’s had good practice, overseeing a $114 million renovation of the Baltimore Library to get it up to date for the digital era. As reported in Oregon Live, Senator Barbara A. Mikulski said of Hayden’s work on the project that “she not only brought the library into the modern age, she avoided technical boondoggles. She's a transformational leader.” The library’s website even features “Carla’s Most Recent Picks,” which include a book about presidential dads, inherited disorders, and Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World's Most Celebrated Drink.

In a video released by the White House upon her nomination, Hayden describes libraries as “opportunity centers”—safe spaces that provide access to information and computers to anyone regardless of class, race, creed, or gender. This devotion to the notion of library as refuge may have delayed her appointment in the Senate, which was held up by anonymous Republicans for five weeks. Upon Hayden’s nomination in February, The Nation suggested that Senate Republicans might block Hayden’s appointment in an article titled “This Radical Librarian May Soon Run The World’s Largest Library,” stating that her personal biography is peppered with examples of her activism that might inform her leadership, including her actions during protests that followed the death of Freddie Grey, when she turned Baltimore Library into a community center where protestors could go to receive food or even utilize a meeting room.

In her opening remarks during her confirmation hearing in April, Hayden expressed her respect for the creative process and the importance of digitizing books to make them accessible. “Of all the titles I've had in my professional career I'm most proud to be called a librarian,” she said.

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