A new era has begun for the Library of Congress (LC), and if Carla Hayden’s first gestures in her role as Librarian of Congress signal sustained momentum to come, the LC of the future might just live up to the hopes of so many. Since her swearing in, on September 14, Hayden has set a compelling tone, one that is purposeful, inclusive, and infused with an important balance between the awesome responsibility of, and a sense of joy in, the work to come.
There was much joy palpable that day. As many watched the ceremony on-site in Washington, DC, and via live stream—as in the offices of LJ and School Library Journal (pictured)—Hayden related the story of being asked to serve. She spoke movingly of the historical moment, especially as an African American woman in light of our national history of slavery, in which Hayden’s forebears, as she noted, were lashed for learning to read. She shared insight into the challenge and opportunity ahead. She expressed a vision of a new level of access for all to the library, reinforcing the message introduced when President Obama announced his intention to nominate her. As she took it on, she turned the task outward beyond the library as well, voicing the need for a shared investment in that future. “We can’t do it alone,” she said. “I am calling on you, both who are here in person and watching virtually, that to have a truly national library, an institution of opportunity for all, is the responsibility of all.”
LJ’s associate news editor Lisa Peet and executive editor Meredith Schwartz were on hand, and Hayden sat down with Schwartz later that day to discuss the immediate future of the library (see Librarian of the People). Aside from initial high-profile steps geared toward greater engagement with the community, she has begun to dig into the work to address the condemnatory report regarding LC’s lagging tech adoption, issued last year by the Government Accountability Office, a priority of the highest order, and has noted an intention to tighten ties with the Digital Public Library of America.
That interview was one of many Hayden has done as she has leaned into the role as the new face of the nation’s library, including mainstream outlets such as CBS and Fox News. It’s been affecting to watch her connect the mission of the library to the people who have always used it and those scholars and members of the public alike whom she hopes to reach in the coming years. Throughout, Hayden has spoken with passion for the institution and its ability to have a profound impact on so many.
The road to that future, of course, will be full of hazards. Among them are the complexity of updating an institution so large and an anticipated tug-of-war over the home of the Copyright Office. To hew to her insight that building a national library is the duty of all, Hayden will have to remain unprecedentedly open to input from outside Washington, even in the face of criticism. She will have to balance the surrender of full control that enables collaboration with the need to steer a coherent course through competing agendas. Such a challenge is worth the effort, and the library and all it serves will be the better for such outward-facing leadership.
While many of the specific directions Hayden plans to steer LC have yet to unfold, she is already excelling at some of the most important aspects of the job: setting and conveying vision, expressing ambitious goals, and laying the groundwork to get the job done. What we know so far promises an LC that maximizes its collections, leverages partnerships, celebrates the expertise of the staff, invests in a wide range of services, and is—perhaps most important—inclusive as never before. In Hayden’s hands, this national treasure promises to be all it needs to: for the members of Congress, as always, but also for the people, as has only been dreamed of until now.