Congratulations, Carla Hayden.
Carla Hayden is kind of a big deal at the moment. If you’ve never heard her name, don’t feel too bad. You’ll know her before long. Until very recently, Hayden was the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Before July 13, 2016, anonymous Republicans blocked her appointment for reasons probably related to the fact that she used to be a children’s librarian and knows how to deal with juvenile behavior. At last, after a grassroots campaign by just about every librarian in the country, Carla Hayden became the new Librarian of Congress.
I’m about to tell you why this is such a big damn deal.
Who is the Librarian of Congress?
Not. One. Until, of course, President Obama nominated Carla Hayden.
That’s not to say that the amateurs were slouches. On the contrary, James H. Billington, who served until 2015, did a fantastic job expanding free, publicly available digital services. You can thank him for Thomas which is now known as Congress.gov, the Braille Audio Reading Download system known as BARD, and the LoC’s social media presence, though one could argue that that rock was going to roll downhill whether Billington was on board or not.
Nevertheless, he was, in fact, a history professor, and he failed to notice certain things about library patrons. For example, a lot of people who use library services do so because they don’t have access to the Internet. A project like Thomas is great and looks fantastic for the government, but doesn’t make a big difference in the life of someone who doesn’t have an Internet connection readily available. See what I mean? That was something he might have been able to work with if he’d taken graduate coursework in community outreach, or even if he’d run a circulation desk for three years. As things stood, he had both good intentions and a blind spot which prevented the Library of Congress from growing in a necessary direction.
For what it’s worth, he also hadn’t done the time. Most librarians grind their way up from page to multiple part-time positions to director the long way. Having a Librarian of Congress who didn’t share that experience was a slap in the face which irritated the heck out of everyone in the profession.
There was another elephant in the room, too. The library profession is 82 percent female. However, 40 percent of library administrators are men. Since, statistically speaking, most librarians are also past all that childbearing business, this is not because a rash of directorial candidates goes out on maternity leave every year. Nor is it because we’re all getting our periods at the same time and just can’t.
The system was set up this way on purpose by Melvil Dewey, father of the modern public library, an unrepentant sexist and racist who wanted to make sure that nobody working beneath him had any chance of edging in on his job. (He didn’t consider women a legitimate threat to his position.) After he was roundly expelled from the American Library Association in 1905, the local, state, and federal governments of America decided that they all agreed with him. Apparently, even an undegreed, nonprofessional male with zero experience in library administration was a more qualified Librarian of Congress than a woman with twenty years in the field.
There has never been a female Librarian of Congress. Until now.
And ordinarily, I’d think that was the reason that the Republican anony-mice were squeaking. However, despite the crazy-historical implications of Carla Hayden being a woman, I think it’s a much, much bigger deal that she’s black.
Everyone, please meet the other elephant in the room.
Race, Libraries, and Why This Is a Big Damn Deal
While the number of African-American, Latino, and Asian public library users grows year by year, professional library workers, young and old, remain overwhelmingly white. It’s a huge problem. No black librarians means no black representation in libraries, which means that public libraries are perceived as white socialization spaces, which means that black patrons may be less likely to approach librarians than white ones. I’ve been in libraries long enough to have seen this for myself. (I’m white.) It’s deeply depressing.
Though Hollywood has librarians out to be shriveled up, antisocial little bookworm raisins, the truth is that a big part of our job involves personally connecting with patrons. Passively creating a racially charged space and making people uncomfortable is exactly the opposite of the reason that we do this.
The fact that anonymous Republican lawmakers blocked her appointment, either because she is black or because she was the nominee of a black president, is merely one more indication that change is needed.
Carla Hayden is a Badass
She’d be a badass no matter what the color of her skin was. Children’s librarians are human dynamos capable of fearsome feats of organization and resourcefulness, and then there was that library system that she saved. However, her skin color has tremendous significance for library patrons, the library profession, and for young people who might feel drawn to library science either as a career or as a means of mass subversion of the status quo through cost-free information dispersal.
The boss of all the American librarians, of Congress’s brain, is African American. She has a PhD in library science. When she’s running that brain, she may be able to—and I hope she will—use her clout to help libraries step over the barriers that run through the midst of the American people. Stepping over conceptual walls is the very reason why libraries exist, and now more than ever, we need to breach the largest and thorniest of them all. I hope she’ll show teenagers and children that a black woman can do great things and that library science is the place to do them.
Just as much, I hope that the enthusiasm with which Hayden’s white colleagues rose by the thousands to sign petitions and make phone calls in support of her nomination will say something larger about standing together, about refusing to accept passive support for racism, and about shifting a monolithic, 400-year-old cultural machine through mass effort and phone minutes. Because you—yes, dear reader, YOU—can do this, too. If a bunch of fusty old cat ladies who literally can’t agree on whether to catalog Fifty Shades of Grey as fiction or romance can stand together for something this important, then anyone can do it. America can do it.
One of my colleagues included me in a mass e-mail today that referred to Hayden’s appointment as a “Great and Noble Victory.” Regardless of how much or how little the librarian outcry actually affected Hayden’s nomination, I’m inclined to agree. There is change afoot. Congratulations, Carla Hayden. We are all behind you.
Anna Call is a reference librarian at the Nevins Memorial Library in Methuen, Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @evil_librarian.