A choice for di­ver­sity in the dig­i­tal age

If con­firmed as the next head of the Li­brary of Congress, Carla D. Hay­den is likely to have a tremen­dous say over the na­tion’s tech­no­log­i­cal fu­ture

The Washington Post - - ON I.T. - BY BRIAN FUNG

Pres­i­dent Obama’s choice to head up the Li­brary of Congress would be the first African Amer­i­can, and the first woman, to hold the job. That fact would prob­a­bly bring a fresh per­spec­tive to a post that is in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try.

On Wed­nes­day, Obama nom­i­nated Carla D. Hay­den, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Enoch Pratt Free Li­brary in Bal­ti­more, as the 14th li­brar­ian of Congress. Hay­den, a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion, was born in Florida and has roots in Chicago. There, as a li­brar­ian with the Chicago Pub­lic Li­brary, she met the Obama fam­ily.

If con­firmed by the Se­nate, Hay­den would have a po­si­tion with very real power, one that is re­spon­si­ble for set­tling some of the most weighty pol­icy ques­tions in tech­nol­ogy. The in­sti­tu­tion has han­dled ques­tions such as whether it is le­gal for you to un­lock your own cell­phone so you can take your de­vice to an­other car­rier, or whether it’s le­gal for se­cu­rity re­searchers or your lo­cal me­chanic to ac­cess the soft­ware pow­er­ing your car.

The Li­brary of Congress has that power be­cause ev­ery three years it can bless cer­tain tech­no­log­i­cal prac­tices by grant­ing them ex­emp­tions from a law that would oth­er­wise make them il­le­gal. This is a func­tion of the U.S. copy­right sys­tem, which is gov­erned by the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­nium Copy­right Act.

The act for­bids you from cir­cum­vent­ing the copy-pro­tec­tion soft­ware that hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers put in their devices. This has made cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties tech­ni­cally il­le­gal, ex­cept when the li­brar­ian of Congress de­cides that they are not. Tin­ker­ing with cell­phone and au­to­mo­tive soft­ware are just two ex­am­ples of this.

As more of our ev­ery­day devices are com­ing with em­bed­ded soft­ware — think smart re­frig­er­a­tors or in­tel­li­gent TVs, for ex­am­ple — that means that the next li­brar­ian of Congress is likely to have a tremen­dous say over our tech­no­log­i­cal fu­ture. This goes to show how im­por­tant Hay­den, if con­firmed, could be.

Hay­den, who has headed the Pratt Li­brary for 22 years, would suc­ceed James H. Billing­ton, who re­tired last year af­ter 28 years as chief of the mas­sive fed­eral agency. Hay­den, 63, has de­clined to be in­ter­viewed, cit­ing the con­fir­ma­tion process.

Her nom­i­na­tion drew plau­dits from con­sumer groups on Wed­nes­day.

“Dr. Hay­den has a strong record of pro­mot­ing pub­lic ac­cess to the In­ter­net and dig­i­tal re­sources,” the ad­vo­cacy group Pub­lic Knowl­edge said in a state­ment. “We ex­pect that as the leader of one of the world’s fore­most cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions and li­braries, she will con­tinue to pro­mote the pub­lic’s in­ter­est in ac­cess to knowl­edge.”

Hay­den is known for weigh­ing in on pol­icy is­sues. In 2003, she stood up to the at­tor­ney gen­eral, John Ashcroft, over the USA Pa­triot Act. Hay­den pressed the Jus­tice Depart­ment to re­veal how of­ten of­fi­cials were us­ing the law to force li­braries to turn over data on their users. Al­though Ashcroft called the li­brar­i­ans’ cam­paign a bunch of “base­less hys­te­ria,” he even­tu­ally agreed to make the in­for­ma­tion avail­able.

Tech-in­dus­try trade groups praised Hay­den’s ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Her past work up­dat­ing li­brary sys­tems for the dig­i­tal age are ex­actly the skills needed to mod­ern­ize the dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture at the Li­brary of Congress,” said Michael Beck­er­man, pres­i­dent of the In­ter­net As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents Google, Uber and Netflix. “We look for­ward to her lead­er­ship and part­ner­ship in shap­ing a dig­i­tal fu­ture for the U.S. Copy­right Of­fice and the Li­brary of Congress more broadly.”

Obama’s de­ci­sion, which he an­nounced on Face­book, fol­lows his pre­vi­ous pat­tern of pick­ing Amer­i­cans with di­verse back­grounds for high pub­lic of­fice. For in­stance, he has se­lected more than 140 women and over a dozen gay or les­bian nom­i­nees to be­come fed­eral judges.

Obama pub­lished a post Wed­nes­day to SCOTUSblog that out­lined his prin­ci­ples for do­ing so: “The third qual­ity I seek in a judge is a keen un­der­stand­ing that jus­tice is not about ab­stract le­gal the­ory, nor some foot­note in a dusty casebook. It’s the kind of life ex­pe­ri­ence earned out­side the class­room and the court­room; ex­pe­ri­ence that sug­gests he or she views the law not only as an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise, but also grasps the way it af­fects the daily re­al­ity of peo­ple’s lives in a big, com­pli­cated democ­racy, and in rapidly chang­ing times.”

By the way, the prece­dent that Hay­den, if con­firmed, would set on di­ver­sity is im­por­tant not just in his­tor­i­cal terms, but also pos­si­bly in the con­text of the cur­rent de­bate about the lack of di­ver­sity in tech­nol­ogy.

More at wash­ing­ton­post.com/news/the-switch


Carla D. Hay­den, the long­time chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Enoch Pratt Free Li­brary in Bal­ti­more, has been nom­i­nated to serve as the next li­brar­ian of Congress, a post that is re­spon­si­ble for de­cid­ing some of the most weighty pol­icy ques­tions in tech­nol­ogy.

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