For Hayden, awe and big challenges
Amid turmoil, she is first woman and first African-American to be librarian of Congress
Carla Hayden can’t wait to open up “the ultimate treasure chest” that is the Library of Congress.
“They have Rosa Parks’ pocketbook,” said Hayden, who will be sworn in today as the 14th librarian of Congress — the first woman and first African-American to fill that position.
“They have the letter that Rosa Parks wrote from jail to her parents. They have Abraham Lincoln’s life mask — not his death mask, but his life mask. They have the contents of his pocket on the night he was assassinated.
“I’m looking forward to sharing my discoveries with the public.”
The awe in Hayden’s voice is palpable. But Washington insiders predict that instead of lifting the lid on a cache of buried jewels, the 64-year-old career librarian might discover instead that she’s just unlocked Pandora’s box.
The Library of Congress is an organization in turmoil. The world’s largest and most prestigious library has seen its reputation suffer after a withering report was released in March 2015 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
After the133-page report concluded that “the Library does not have the leadership needed” to fix its problems, there were public calls for the resignation of Hayden’s predecessor, James H. Billington, who had guided the library for 28 years.
The report painted a picture of an institution in danger of losing touch with the public because it hasn’t kept pace with modern methods of creating, sharing and preserving information.
For instance, a huge backlog of materials moldering in warehouses has yet even to be cataloged — let alone digitized. As a result, most U.S. citizens living far from Washington are denied access to the same cultural jewels that make Hayden’s eyes light up.
Hayden said she “doesn’t have an opinion” about Billington’s performance in recent years.
“In the 1990s, he was instrumental in starting some of the first efforts at digitizing, and that’s to his credit,” she said. “I’ve participated in a number of symposiums at the Library of Congress since I’ve been in Baltimore. He’s always been very gracious and in fact has extended his hand to me.”
Billington, who retired Sept. 30, 2015, described the report’s findings as “fundamentally not true” and added, “The problems were all in the process of being solved. For 19 years we had clean managerial audits.”
He said he is looking forward to attending the swearing-in ceremony. He is familiar with Hayden’s “fine reputation for her library expertise and for her highly regarded library leadership in Baltimore.”
He said discussion of the GAO report is unseemly, because “this should be a time of rejoicing for Dr. Hayden.”
Hayden is also facing an internal revolt from the U.S. Copyright Office. That agency is part of the Library of Congress but has petitioned federal lawmakers to establish it as an independent entity.
The copyright office’s director, Maria Pallante, testified before Congress in December that her organization has been hampered by the library’s “outmoded, frustrating and inefficient” technology sys- tems, which provide “substandard service” to her customers.
For instance, the copyright office lost online services for nine days in August 2015 due to an extended systems failure that followed routine maintenance, Pallante testified. Customers worldwide couldn’t check the status of pending patent applications, complete business transactions or obtain court-ordered legal documents.
Hayden said she’s withholding judgment for now about whether copyright and patent functions should be split off.
“I’ve met with the register of copyrights, and I support her concerns that the technology be fully functioning and modernized and effective,” Hayden said. “I want to work with her and Congress and see where it goes.”
Though the primary responsibility of the Library of Congress is providing research for federal lawmakers, it’s widely regarded as America’s library. It’s also a resource for scholars worldwide.
“The Library of Congress absolutely is de facto the global library,” said Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association. “Nothing else even comes close. It has 162 million items and 12,000 new ones are added daily. But, there are a huge number of issues with providing leadership to make those resources as digitally accessible as possible.”
Hayden is taking on a monumental task. But publicly, at least, she’s expressing every confidence that the library’s problems can be expeditiously remedied.
Though just one of the GAO’s 31 recommendations has been fully implemented, Hayden said she’s pleased that a follow-up report released last month “found that there’s been quite a bit of progress already” in the year since Bernard “Bud” Barton, Jr. was appointed as the library’s new chief technology officer — the first person to hold that post since 2012.
“The report expressed great satisfaction with what Bud has already done to make sure most of the items in the initial report are being worked on and some are even being fixed,” she said.
“Great satisfaction” is perhaps a bit of an overstatement.
Joel C. Willemssen, who wrote both GAO reports, characterizes the problems afflicting the library’s information systems as deep-rooted and complex. Some, he said in a phone interview, will take years to fully address. But, he’s satisfied that Barton and his staff are working hard to mend the technological infrastructure.
“The new librarian comes in with a perfect opportunity to set a vision for where she wants to go in an electronic world,” he said.
Hayden’s supporters say she has the backbone, political savvy and grit to pull off even a turn-around this daunting. This is the woman who assumed the top job at the Pratt in 1993 when the library’s reputation was in a decline so steep many feared it wouldn’t recover and restored it to a position of national prominence.
There’s a reason, they say, that this year Fortune magazine ranked Hayden 25th among the world’s 50 greatest leaders.
“The Pratt is known as one of the most innovative library systems in the country, and that’s because of Carla’s leadership,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.
“She took over at a time when the way that people were interacting with books was changing radically. But at every turn, she was able to keep the library relevant, accessible and current.”
Hayden was born in 1952 in Tallahassee, Fla., but grew up in Chicago, where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago’s Graduate Library School.
In 1991, when Hayden became second in command of Chicago’s public library system, she met a talented and charismatic couple who would exert a profound influ- ence on her career.
Michelle Robinson worked for former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and was responsible for overseeing several education-related agencies, including the library system. Hayden became friendly with Robinson and the young lawyer she was dating, Barack Obama. A quarter-century later, Obama nominated Hayden as librarian of Congress.
“I came to Baltimore right as they were getting married,” Hayden said, “so I didn’t get to go to the wedding. Wekept in touch in the early years, but we were all busy.”
Longtime Pratt employee Deborah Taylor was impressed with her new boss’ bravery. “When she came here, the Pratt was not in great shape,” said Taylor, coordinator of school and student services for the Pratt. Budgetary shortfalls resulted in the central library being closed on Fridays while neighborhood libraries shut on Saturdays.
Hayden made the difficult decision to close seven branches of the 28-library system. “She had to withstand lots of criticism from the public and the communities,” Taylor said.
Though Hayden can be fiery when necessary, Todaro said her proposals are based on meticulously compiled data. Taylor described Hayden as combining cool logic with personal warmth.
“One thing Carla does really well is build relationships with people,” Taylor said, “whether it’s the directors of other libraries or legislators or our customers.”
Those skills came in handy when Hayden embarked on two major building projects: the $16 million Southeast Anchor Library, which in 2007 became the first newly built library in Baltimore in 35 years, and the $115 million renovation of the central library that broke ground in June.
The latter was a project that Hayden had worked on for two decades, and it involved persuading legislators that the overhaul of the 1933 Cathedral Street landmark benefited not just Baltimoreans, but downstate constituents.
“She was able to be persuasive in an environment not always looking to be supportive of projects that take place in Baltimore,” Rawlings-Blake said. “To say that she’s leaving the Pratt in a better condition than she found it is a gross understatement.”
Todaro said that Hayden “is an incredible leader of staff.” She cited the much-praised decision to keep the Pratt’s Pennsylvania Avenue branch open during the 2015 unrest sparked by the death of Freddie Gray, though the library is located across the street from the CVS store that was looted and torched.
“When violence broke out, Carla wasn’t anywhere near Pennsylvania Avenue,” Todaro said. “She went home and packed a bag and went right over. There are times when it’s imperative to lead from the front lines, and she knew this was one of them.”
Chances are that Hayden already has plans for the Library of Congress, though she’s reluctant to provide many specifics before her first day of work.
“Expanding access is my number one concern,” she said.
In the next five years, she’d like to make sure that at least half of the library’s 162 million items are digitized. She wants the library to put on more live performances and broadcasts. She hopes to mount traveling exhibits that will tour America and tie in with educational programming for schoolkids.
She knows these initiatives will take money — lots of money — that the library doesn’t have. She can’t wait to begin to find it.
“The possibilities are almost endless when you’re dealing with a collection this rich,” she said. “Who knew that being a librarian would lead to all this?”