November 24, 2017

Hayden, Marx in Conversation at NYPL

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Carla Hayden and Tony Marx in conversation at NYPL
Photo credit: Chasi Annexy/The New York Public Library

On Halloween night, Friends and trustees of New York Public Library (NYPL) got a treat that didn’t require a costume: Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and NYPL President Tony Marx sat down together for a lively hour-long discussion of research, preservation, digitization, Hayden’s plans for the Library of Congress (LC), and the influence of Hamilton. The conversation was the first in a series of public programs over the next year highlighting the importance of archival research.

The event was held as part of the celebration of the reopening of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building’s Rose Main Reading Room and Bill Blass Public Catalog Room. These had been closed since May 2014, when a plaster rosette fell from the Reading Room’s 52-foot ceiling in the middle of the night. After an inspection, the ceiling was deemed structurally sound, but NYPL decided to err on the side of caution and reinforce all of the decorative rosettes bordering the ceiling with steel cables, and at the same time to restore the mural on the ceiling of the Bill Blass room. The spaces reopened in October 2016 with a celebratory ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Sitting at the front of the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Trustees Room—hung with what Marx called “incredibly politically incorrect 400-year-old tapestries”—the two bantered briefly and then got down to business. “Why libraries?” asked Marx.

Hayden described her experiences with public libraries as a young patron and then a librarian, and her dawning realization of what sanctuaries they were for their constituents. Plus, she told Marx, “In the ’70s, when I was a baby librarian, what attracted me was the idea of information as power.”

The Public Research Library

Moving to LC after much of a career spent in public libraries, Hayden said the transition clicked for her once she realized that she could serve the same kinds of communities. “Opening up this ultimate public library to as many people as possible who might never get a chance to come to Washington, DC, and see Lincoln’s life mask—four months before he died he sat for a life mask, not a death mask—and [they could] have a 3-D rendering of it, and turn it around, [while] sitting on a reservation in New Mexico. That’s when I said, OK. I can do this.”

Making LC’s collection accessible to as many people as possible became Hayden’s priority as soon as she stepped into her new role. She began tweeting the interesting and unusual items that she discovered every day, relating them to something going on in the world; the day of the NYPL conversation, for instance, Hayden highlighted the funeral program of Harry Houdini, who died on Halloween.

Digital dissemination, Hayden said, is “a game changer.” She spoke of plans to partner with school systems to augment the K–12 curriculum, and ways to feature the collections that would be useful to educators and interesting to the general public alike. Hayden and Marx held up the wildly popular musical Hamilton and its soundtrack, for example, as a cultural phenomenon that has gotten a wide range of the population interested in American history: “There are so many young people that want to know,” said Hayden “‘is there another cool guy in history?’” (She suggested Benedict Arnold.) Now LC can bring that history to them.

Talking about Hamilton gave the two the opportunity to indulge in a little good-natured library rivalry. Marx crowed a bit about NYPL’s current Hamilton exhibit. (“I did see that,” interjected Hayden. “I said, wow, we could do that. We’ll put some banners up. We’ve got some Hamilton stuff.”) While viewing Hamilton’s handwritten draft of George Washington’s farewell address, Marx related, “This little ten-year-old kid is talking about [Hamilton’s wife] Eliza as if she’s alive and a friend. And I say, ‘Wow, did you see the show?’ And he says, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t possibly get tickets to the show. But I have it memorized.’” The library could bring history alive, said Marx.

And then they’d want to find out more, added Hayden, and could search on LC’s website—where they would see the last letter that Hamilton wrote to Eliza.

“I think that actually belongs to us,” said Marx. “We’ll talk about that later.”

WAYS TO SPREAD KNOWLEDGE

When asked what she would like to see from public libraries, Hayden responded, “Let the Library of Congress bring traveling exhibits to you.” The library is currently working on what she described as “LC Live,” which would bring material to communities and provide programming, with curators giving talks or lecturing via Skype. LC also wants to know what local libraries are doing, she said, so it can plan cooperative exhibits. LC and NYPL, she added, are “plotting and planning some things…so stay tuned.”

As for surprises on the new job, Hayden said she was impressed to discover that, of LC’s 162 million items, “There are people in that library that could probably tell you where each item is.” Approximately 3,200 people work at LC, said Hayden, including analysts, cartographers, preservation specialists (“When you go into the conservation lab it looks like a surgery”), music experts, curators, catalogers, and support staff.

Hayden realized that the issue of knowledge transfer would become more important as employees with 40 or 45 years on the job—and accumulated knowledge of LC—neared retirement age. “So there’s a program now to get less experienced staff members to work with these senior people to find out all the nooks and crannies, because everything isn’t cataloged.”

When an audience member asked about those uncataloged items, Hayden noted that most libraries have a backlog. Also, she said, LC does original cataloging, and collects in over 170 languages, which can be time-intensive. “Just to be fair,” added Marx, “the same is true of the New York Public Library,” especially when it comes to archival material.

COPYRIGHT QUESTIONS

Hayden demurred on audience questions about how copyright legislation impedes digitization efforts and what can be done about it. “I don’t have any opinion on how the law should evolve, because that’s really Congress…and I’m not a copyright expert,” she answered. Much of what LC is digitizing now is old and not impeded by copyright, but the law is certainly something they take into account. When asked if she considered it her position to advocate for open access, Hayden answered decisively, “No. I’m a librarian. And so my position…is to really make sure that the particular library that I’m in now is open and available, and serves the people that it’s supposed to serve.” That includes serving Congress—one of LC’s original missions—and in turn all the communities that Congress serves.

When representatives from the British Library visited LC recently, she said, they discussed what they had been doing to use and repurpose materials. For example, through arrangements with authors, the library has been able to publish its own line of crime novels, which are best sellers in Britain. LC hopes to come up with similarly inventive ideas—perhaps, she suggested, the “Ms. Hayden Crime Series.”

Marx mentioned the need to be respectful of copyright holders’ interests, but added, “There is still so much more that we could do, even within the [copyright] parameters that we have—things that have been lost…that now could be refound.” If you could find a way to remove the physical constraints on access to the world’s books, he noted, “you would have an explosion of learning and creativity the likes of which the world has never seen. And I bet we can do that even within much of the legal restrictions that we have if we get creative and work together.”

WORKING WITHIN CONSTRAINTS

Bringing up a scary question in honor of Halloween, one audience member wanted to know what keeps Hayden up at night when it comes to funding issues.

While she didn’t feel that staying up at night and worrying was particularly useful, Hayden did lay out a couple of concerns: being able to preserve fragile items, and keeping up with technology. To those, Marx added concerns about the management of physical space and delicate collections, and the cost of digitization and ebook creation.

In light of funding restrictions and the sheer amount of material that needs saving, another attendee asked how we make certain that the richness and diversity of our culture can be preserved. That’s where private funding can help, Hayden replied, not to mention a community of librarians and scholars who work to steward the preservation effort.

“You have to err, if you can, on the side of inclusion,” said Marx. He recalled, earlier in his career at NYPL, questioning why the library had a room full of phone books. “They quickly told me the story that after the Second World War when Jewish émigrés from Poland were suing for restitution, the Polish government said there were no Jews living permanently in Warsaw. The only 1943 Warsaw telephone book in existence was at the New York Public Library, and the case turned on it. Lesson learned.”

“A GOOD CHALLENGE”

Hayden sees the blurring boundaries between research and circulating libraries and community centers as a good thing. “I wouldn’t say they’re eroding. I think they’re just kind of blending.” Both spoke to the increasing access that public library patrons have to research and academic collections. “The distinction between closed and circulating, in a digital world—what does that mean?” asked Marx. Making buried resources discoverable would be an amazing end product of their digitization efforts—“and on the other side, we need to teach our kids what a great research library can do for them.”

Marx and Hayden both noted that bringing resources to people probably won’t become an either-or situation; digital scholarship did not mean the death of libraries, and users still flock to libraries even as they access materials in their homes and schools. The challenge, said Hayden, was the broad nature of the collections—that LC’s mandate was not just to digitize a rare manuscript but to figure out how to represent an Aztec necklace as well. (“People say, ‘Don’t say challenge—say opportunity,’” added Hayden; then acknowledged, “It’s a challenge. But it’s a good challenge.”)

“It’s exciting,” she said. “Here’s this treasure chest. Now how are we going to open it up for everybody?” The key, Hayden and Marx agreed, is to preserve these materials, and at the same time to make sure they are visible—and that everyone can see them.

“So we’re going to take our treasures out of the vault after 100 years and put them on display, and get every school kid to come and see them?” asked Marx.

“That’s it,” Hayden answered.

“I want all of us to think about growing scholars,” she added. “You want young people to be as comfortable knowing that they have the Library of Congress at their disposal…as they would [be] going to the P.S. 96 branch across the street. That’s what’s going to make a difference in this country.”


 

A live stream of the event can be viewed on NYPL’s website.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding me what a special evening that was at the NYPL. I especially enjoyed your comments on the “rivalry” between Hayden and Marx and their respective institutions, and the ending of your piece, about Hayden’s intentions for “growing scholars.” An exceptional person, the new LoC head.