President Obama has tapped Dr. Carla Hayden to be the next Librarian of Congress. She’s a tech-savvy, open access champion who supporters say could help bring the nation’s largest and most important library into the digital age.
Libraries are crucially important institutions in a democracy, not merely as repositories for society’s accumulated body of knowledge, but more importantly as vital community hubs—at once both symbolic and practical—where the citizenry has open access to that knowledge.
As one of the most prominent librarians in the United States, Hayden has spent much of her career working to close the digital divide, and to expand access to information—a fact highlighted by Obama in a statement on Wednesday.
“Dr. Hayden has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today's digital culture,” said Obama, who first met Hayden decades ago when she worked at the Chicago Public Library, where she would eventually become Deputy Commissioner and Chief Librarian.
Michael Beckerman, the president and CEO of the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook, and many other tech companies, said in a statement that Hayden’s “past work updating library systems for the digital age are exactly the skills needed to modernize the digital infrastructure at the Library of Congress.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Hayden would be the first female, African-American Librarian of Congress, and would assume leadership of an institution that plays an important role in crafting US tech policy, particularly on digital copyright issues such as cell-phone unlocking. (The US Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress.)
Hayden is also widely respected among public interest groups and civil libertarians for her outspoken opposition to the PATRIOT Act over a decade ago, when privacy advocates feared the government would use the law to snoop on the library records of American citizens.
“From protecting privacy and ending the digital divide to advocating for the public's right to access information, Dr. Hayden has consistently exhibited just the sort of priorities we would expect of the head of an institution that should be more than just a repository of culture and knowledge, but a pioneer in enabling access to these treasures,” Raza Panjwani, policy counsel at DC-based advocacy group Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
Sari Feldman, president of the American Library Association, praised Hayden as “a professional librarian uniquely positioned with the leadership and management skills and understanding of digital technology to make the Library of Congress the preeminent national library in the world, highly-valued by and serving all Americans as a treasured resource.”
Since 1993, Hayden has served as the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland. Last year, Hayden was honored by the ALA for her efforts to keep the Pratt library system open and engaged with the community during the civil unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray. Even as looters pillaged a burning CVS drugstore across the street from a Pratt branch, Hayden kept the library open, under the protection of National Guard troops.
“In a lot of communities in Baltimore, especially challenged ones, we are the only resource,” Hayden told American Libraries magazine last year. “If we close, we’re sending a signal that we’re afraid or that we aren’t going to be available when times are tough. We should be open especially when times are tough.”
Hayden has also been a strong advocate for exposing children to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education at an earlier age. Last year, the Pratt Library partnered with the Maryland STEM Festival to offer free interactive programs for kids at all of Pratt’s branches.
As president of the American Library Association from 2003 to 2004, Hayden waded into the intense debate surrounding the PATRIOT Act, the controversial post-9/11 law that would become an integral part of the US government’s vast surveillance system. At the time, privacy advocates feared that the government would use the law to monitor the library records of US citizens, much as it did during the McCarthy era, when federal officials aimed to purge allegedly-subversive “Communist” literature from libraries.
Hayden’s public advocacy campaign challenging the PATRIOT Act was so effective that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft—who had ridiculed the ALA’s concerns as “baseless hysteria”—personally called her to apologize for his comments, and pledged to declassify information about the government’s requests for library records.
“When libraries fight against the PATRIOT Act, or against [mandatory internet filters], we’re fighting for the public,” Hayden said in an interview for Ms. magazine’s 2003 “Women of the Year” issue. “Most of the people who use public libraries don’t have the opportunity to buy books at a bookstore or on Amazon.com. What the library does is protect the rights of all people to fully and freely access information and to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.”
Obama has sent Hayden’s nomination to Capitol Hill, where she must be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. But given that body’s recent history of delaying and obstructing the president’s nominees for a variety of federal offices—as well as Hayden’s very public opposition to the Patriot Act—her confirmation process is unlikely to be smooth sailing.