Photos courtesy of Shawn Miller/Library of Congress
Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress in Washington, D.C., is the first woman and first African American to hold the position. President Barack Obama appointed her to the position after she had served at the helm of the American Library Association.
We caught up with Hayden as the Library of Congress launched the ambitious new exhibition Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote, which runs through September 2020 and marks the centennial of women’s suffrage. We learned about Hayden’s passion for stories of all kinds—fiction, nonfiction and, yup, comic books.
AAA World: You’ve been an avid reader since childhood. Can you share with us what is it about the written word that casts such a spell upon you?
Carla Hayden: You know how just a single book can change a life, how books unlock life’s wonders, how they teach us to live and flourish?
When I was little girl in Queens, New York, I checked out Marguerite de Angel’s Bright April from the public library and instantly fell in love with it. It was about a young African American girl who was a Brownie with pigtails. It was the first book I remember where I really saw myself [in the story]. I think books are important as a window to other worlds, but they can also be mirrors.
AAAW: How does your background as a librarian affect what you do each day?
Hayden: I’m the fourteenth Librarian of Congress since the library’s founding in 1800. There have been scholars, lawyers and authors who have led this great library—and also two other public librarians who led the Library of Congress.
Libraries continue to evolve to meet the needs of our communities and the needs of the nation. We are working to modernize and streamline our operations to make sure we are focused on users both in person and online around the world.
AAAW: You also happen to be the first woman and first African American Librarian of Congress. Do those facts inform your approach to the position?
Hayden: Like any leader, I use my experience to inform my approach to leading the library. As Fredrick Douglass said, ‘Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.’ And now everyone has the opportunity to be empowered by literacy. Our challenge is to make sure the [Library of Congress] is open, inclusive and easy to access for all people. We are also working to train a diverse corps of new librarians, archivists and historians so that if I’m a first, I won’t be the last woman or African American to lead one of our nation’s great cultural institutions.
Library of Congress
AAAW: You’ve become famous for working to get the trove of archival documents in the Library of Congress’ collection digitized so that people around the world can access them. What makes this so critical?
Hayden: We see a real opportunity to open up the treasure chest of the Library of Congress and share these amazing collections with more people online through our digitized collections—from the papers of 23 presidents to the personal collections of Rosa Parks, Alexander Hamilton and leaders of the movement for women’s voting rights. We know people love accessing these collections online. Giving people more access to all of these treasures can change their lives.
AAAW: Can you explain the importance of the Library of Congress hosting events such as concerts and lectures by musicians such as Gloria Estefan and Cyndi Lauper and Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith?
Hayden: These are wonderful ways to showcase American creativity and celebrate the power of words, poetry, music and the arts. This year, we honored Gloria Estefan and Emilio Estefan with the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Cyndi Lauper was one of the featured artists performing in their honor along with Patti Labelle and others. The show is televised each year and is available online from PBS (pbs.org).
AAAW: The Library of Congress is home to one of Washington, D.C.’s most important current exhibitions: Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote, which marks the centennial of women’s suffrage with original letters, photos and speeches. How did this come together?
Hayden: We are very excited about this new exhibition. It all started with the American suffragists themselves. Many of them chose to donate their personal collections many years ago so that their story will be remembered after they fought for more than 70 years for women’s voting rights.
We have handwritten letters, speeches, photographs and scrapbooks from suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chapman Catt and many others.
AAAW: Today, many teens and tweens are graphic novel aficionados. You have been out front in embracing this genre, as has the Library of Congress as a whole, which has an original Avengers No. 1 from 1963 in its collection. What makes graphic novels worthy literature?
Hayden: I’m a huge fan of graphic novels, and I was a children’s librarian early in my career. Graphic novels are a great way to reach new readers and open up new possibilities for young people. The Library of Congress has the largest collection of comic books, including the first edition of Wonder Woman, the original drawings for the first Spider-Man story and much more.
AAAW: With the rise of electronic media, do you ever worry about the fate of libraries? What will keep libraries relevant?
Hayden: We like to say that libraries were the original search engines. The power of libraries is that we can take you deeper into a subject, rather than just skimming the surface. I think the public appreciates that libraries are a trusted source of information. There’s no doubt that libraries will continue to be relevant.
Library of Congress
AAAW: What might surprise visitors to the Library of Congress? Is there something often overlooked that they should check out?
Hayden: One thing that may surprise visitors is that we have many, many books—and that there are 15 million photographs as well as the world’s largest collections of films, maps, music and sound recordings.
There are so many surprises in the collections; it’s mind-boggling, things like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s handwritten drafts for the lyrics for The Sound of Music and Jonathan Larson’s notes and edits from when he was creating the musical Rent—or items like Rosa Parks’ pancake recipe and Thomas Jefferson’s edits to the Declaration of Independence.
AAAW: Finally, for AAA readers, can you share a few recommendations for great road trip reads?
Hayden: Before jumping into your car for that road trip, make sure you have a book, whether it’s a printed book, an audiobook or an e-book. I personally love mysteries that keep me at the edge of my seat. Find a book that you can connect with family and friends for a lively and passionate discussion while you’re on the road.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.