The Librarian of Congress marks a cool seven years in the job

Not too many people nominated during the Obama administration are still around. But the next guest recently marked seven years in a crucial, but largely hidden job: Librarian of Congress. For a retrospective, Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with her: Dr. Carla Hayden.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And you are only the 14th Librarian of Congress in something that was established in 1802. So there’s a good history of continuity in this job, isn’t there?

Carla Hayden Very much so. And also, I’m the third person to be Librarian of Congress that was actually a librarian. My two predecessors years ago were the heads of the Cleveland Public Library and the Boston Public Library. And I just recently was the head of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. That’s also the State Library from Maryland. And we proudly would say the first library system in the United States.

Tom Temin Well, having been born in Cleveland and grew up around Boston, so I know a lot of those places. I used to have lunch on the steps of the Boston Public Library. And let me ask you this. How do you approach or how have you been approaching this kind of dichotomy, if you will, in mission? There was a need for public access to the richness of the Library of Congress, and we won’t spend too much time over how vast that is, people probably realize, but at the same time, it is also the Library of Congress, which has the ultimate rights to what’s going on there. And how do you handle that sort of dual mission, if you will?

Carla Hayden The Library of Congress, of course, is the world’s largest library, just a collection of over 170 million items. It’s the largest collection of human knowledge in the world. And it also is the nonpartisan research arm of Congress. That’s how it started. It started with 600 law books that, when you think about 1800, the first librarian came in 1802. It was a new nation, these were reference books to serve them. But now it is really the research arm for Congress and the people Congress serves. And so there’s still a dedicated staff, the Congressional Research Service, and many people know about the reports that they make publicly available out of the research they do for Congress. And that’s hundreds of specialists in every field. Plus, one of my favorite things embedded librarians and information specialists that work with PhDs in energy and just every topic. And then the three physical buildings that are open to the general public adjacent to the Capitol. And before the pandemic, 2 million people visited those buildings because there’s a direct tunnel, a link from the Capitol Visitor Center. And so people from all over the world are able to look at the exhibits that are being able to now go through our digital front door. We’ve digitized 61 million items, and so that being able to still serve Congress and be that for them. But also the people Congress serves has been an exciting part of what we’re doing and letting people know about all of the things they can access.

Tom Temin And a side question on that idea of digitizing so many of the resources. I think one of the great innovations in that process was the use of citizen translators, citizen leaders, people that could volunteer and take a document and read something that was faded ink on parchment or ink on paper or something and create the digital version. Is there still opportunity for that?

Carla Hayden Oh, there’s quite a bit of opportunity. And the pandemic really allowed us to accelerate that effort. We started it several years ago by the people. And there are so many documents that need to be transcribed so they’re more accessible, as you can imagine, cursive writing. And we even had intergenerational projects too, because you might have younger people who were very good with the computers but couldn’t read cursive writing. And so we even had that where we invited people to help us. The first group of documents were letters to Abraham Lincoln that hadn’t really been read in decades. And so now we’re putting more things up and anyone can get online and start helping us transcribe all types. The diaries of Clara Barton, all of these types of things that are in sometimes a format that makes it hard for people now to read or available. So please, if you’d like to do it, we really appreciate it. It’s kind of fun too. And the language that’s used in the older times is kind of interesting too.

Tom Temin It would be nice to maybe get some of these texters and Instagram and TikTok generation people to maybe digitize those documents and think of the English and the classical ability of self-expression that they might learn in so doing.

Carla Hayden It might be very helpful. And the interesting part was the lack of an ability to read cursive writing. It’s like a foreign language to a younger generation.

Tom Temin Crazy. We’re speaking with Dr. Carla Hayden. She is the 14th Librarian of Congress. And speaking of COVID and the pandemic, how did that affect the library? And are you back to where it was prior?

Carla Hayden We are almost entirely back to the number of people who were able to just physically come in to the facilities. Jefferson Building, the Adams Building and the Madison Building right there. And what we were able to do, because we had spent before the pandemic, several years strengthening our information technology infrastructure. It was in a challenge space, and there was even a GAO report about it that was made public that we needed to work on that. But all of that work paid off because when the pandemic hit and we had to switch to teleworking, virtual programing, for instance, the National Book Festival was all virtual with 120 authors who were able to zoom, and we were able to have authors that might not have been able to make it for that one day at the Washington Convention Center that we’d been having. So we had a actually a richer variety of programing, and so we continued that aspect. So this year, the National Book Festival was back at the Washington Convention Center. However, we had the virtual component, so we had people from all 50 states that were able to tune in and listen to and even interact with an author that’s in Washington. So we learned a lot of lessons. We were already going down a digital path, and it’s happened with many institutions and individuals. The pandemic pushed us down there little or rapidly, and we saw what could work. Zoom became a verb. And it’s really, though, has helped us do something that we said we wanted to do in our strategic planning, connect to everyone. And so this really has opened it up for us.

Tom Temin And I want to ask you a philosophic question maybe about the role of libraries. And this is in the context of what has happened in the country over the past several years, the latest example of which I heard just the other day on the radio, which is that certain stained glass windows in the National Cathedral have been replaced because the old ones showed Stonewall Jackson and Robert E Lee. And maybe now we don’t want to have statues to those people, but neither do we want to pretend they never existed. Do you think that in fact it would be harmful to our national memory and understanding of events if we erase that memory? So it seems like libraries are in a unique position to strike the balance between you can’t change the past. In fact, the better we preserve it, the more we understand ourselves. And maybe the libraries are the best place for this kind of adjustment to occur.

Carla Hayden Libraries and museums have such an important role in providing context. And my colleague, Dr. Lonnie Bunch at the Smithsonian talks about this quite a bit.

Tom Temin And he’s been on the show to an impressive man.

Carla Hayden Very impressive, because when you erase one part of history, you are also opening the door to erasing other parts and giving people a sense of how things came to be. And giving that context can help with that understanding of where we are now and where we could go in the future. And libraries and museums are places that people look to for trusted information. I know we have in the library world one of the greatest stereotypes that we’re not in it for anything, we’re trusted, and that’s something that people can count on in this time that there’s quite a bit of things, which are misinformation or that libraries and museums can be that place that you know that people are vetting the information and trying to give you a sense of what you can count on.

Tom Temin We continue now with our interview with Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress. And I wanted to ask you, getting back to your term, you have three years left and you’ve made a lot of changes. Maybe summarize how you think the library has come in these seven years and what your plan is for the next three that you have, at least that we know of in your term because it is subject to reappointment. But that’s nothing we can really speculate on at this point.

Carla Hayden Well, I mentioned the multi-year effort to strengthen the library’s IT infrastructure and to be able to offer more collections and also programing and direct interactions with the general public and with Congress as we serve them. And so that will be expanding even more and strengthening the onsite experiences that people have in the three buildings, especially the Thomas Jefferson, really our front door. And so we’ll have for the first time an orientation center for the general public to help them understand what the Library of Congress is, what it can do for them, like our Veterans History Oral History project that they can participate in. A learning lab, this is close to my heart for the young and the young at heart. It will have interactive experiences in programing, and we hope to inspire a new generation of researchers and filmmakers. Ken Burns uses our collections extensively. So there’s an opportunity for more people to become creators and even historians. And then our exhibit spaces will be expanded. For the first time, we’ll have in the Jefferson Building a Treasures Gallery, and we’ll be able to rotate some of the many things that we have, like the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the night he was assassinated seen at the Ford Theater on loan there. But we’ll be able to put things on display and just expand the awareness of what the Library of Congress is.

Tom Temin With respect to those treasures. They’re still coming in to, aren’t they?

Carla Hayden Oh, yes. We just received the collection of the playwright Neil Simon. So the cultural arts are very extensive at the library, as well as the historic papers that are coming in. Secretary Madeleine Albright’s papers, here we have the papers and we’ve been able to work with the Supreme Court on the papers of 38 Supreme Court justices, including Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And those two women were very involved in setting up the term. So we work closely with the Supreme Court on what can be made available to the public, as well as the papers of 23 presidents. And that’s where our relationship with [National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)] is very strong and has been even strengthened. We think your listeners will be pleased to know that there was a, and it’s even been put up as a tweet from the new archivist of the United States call Dr. Colleen Shogan hosted me as the librarian and also Dr. Lonnie Bunch from the Smithsonian to continue the partnership that we had with her predecessor, David Farrell. We call ourselves the Gang of Three.

Tom Temin Well, I can tell you that Ms. Shogan  is going to be on the show shortly, too. We’ve got that interview lined up because we think.

Carla Hayden She is wonderful. And so just making sure that those three institutions, for instance, the Library of Congress, had the founding documents until the 1950s. And then when our was established, they turned them over. And there’s a very dramatic photograph. And we found out later through correspondence that it was staged with the Librarian of Congress and the archivist at the time to have tankers come up to the steps of the Library of Congress to take the Bill of Rights of the Constitution, all those things that have been there when people sometimes get a little confused about what the difference is the course in our is the official place for government documents and correspondence, and the Library of Congress might have the diaries, Teddy Roosevelt. So when you think about it now, that’s the division. And so it makes it a when we work on and that’s one of the things that we talked about last week, just the fact the relationship with those three institutions can give a richer, let’s say, exhibit experience. So it has the actual clothes that Benjamin Franklin wore. NARA has documents from his patents, all kinds of things. And in the Library of Congress might have his correspondence. And so we’re going to be working on how can we, one of my favorites was the overall and Wilbur Wright archives at the Library of Congress. So we have that. NARA has all of their official documentation for their flight. And as Dr. Bunch reminded us, they have the plane.

Tom Temin Yes, indeed, they sure do.

Carla Hayden So there’s more we can do to just make sure that our collections connect. But that’s the dividing line there.

Tom Temin We are speaking with Dr. Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, as she celebrates seven years of a ten-year-term in office. And as someone who used to use card catalogs and had a rudimentary understanding of the Dewey Decimal System. Gosh, librarian science has changed so vastly as to be almost unrecognizable from when I was growing up anyhow. What are the human capital needs of something like the Library of Congress? And what does it take to be a librarian? What does that word really mean nowadays?

Carla Hayden Nowadays, the word librarian has expanded to be an information specialist when that’s what librarians always were. And we even have T-shirts and mugs that say librarian. The original search engines, we would help you. And once technology gave us even more ability to fill those card catalogs, we’re now the online catalogs. So we have instead of graduate library schools where you get a master’s degree in library sciences, now a master’s degree in information science. And we’re actually having some competition for our graduates with big tech firms, because one of the things that you learn is search techniques and what in reference and answering the question that. So you really have and we’re attracting a lot of younger people into the profession because that is a service that libraries give, and it’s not commercial. And so they’re able to give information, access and help people find the information they need. Health information is the number one aspect of what people go to libraries for still.

Tom Temin And do you think that librarians also need to have, let’s say, a digital side and what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, a sensual side. By that I mean the love and appreciation of paper, books and typography of the parchment documents that you mentioned and of I mean, I remember how libraries used to smell. I mean, book glue.

Carla Hayden That was the glue. And what has happened is that there is now more of a specialty with people who are involved with the book arts, the book as artifacts, they the documents as physical items. And so the digitizing of letters for instance, but also the preservation of the physical. And so you now have preservationists and people who and younger people who are interested in chemistry and art and all of that, that are working with the original items and that subspecialty there and people who care for rare books. And then you have the digital side that are just straight up, here’s what’s being born digital, as they call it. So what information is coming in? It never touches anything physical. It’s straight into the digital. So there are so many opportunities now, and the museum world have the same thing. You have this variety of ways to touch information or items.

Tom Temin And two final quick questions. What’s your favorite type of butterscotch?

Carla Hayden Anything that has a connection to chocolate.

Tom Temin All right. And I guess I missed that mark on a little bit. And last question. What was in Lincoln’s pocket?

Carla Hayden Oh, it’s such an experience to see. He had two glasses, he had two pairs of glasses, spectacles. As it was called. He had her handkerchief that had his initials on it and it was used. He also had a wallet with a Confederate bill. He had just been down to visit the South and had that. He had about six newspaper articles that were well read and about the war and that were basically critical of his efforts. And then the part that really got me something like it’s almost a button. And when you think about a button coming off of your jacket, and you would just put it in your pocket and that that might have been more immediate, that might have happened earlier that day. So it really brings him to life in a poignant way.

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