Librarian of Congress, honored by Newberry, wants America to see our treasures

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Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden

The CVS drug store across the street had been looted. Buildings were burning. Rioters tossed rocks, injuring 15 police officers. The governor imposed a curfew and called out the National Guard. While the University of Maryland closed its downtown campus and the Orioles postponed their home game against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards, head librarian Carla Hayden decided to not to close the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of Baltimore’s venerable Enoch Pratt Free Library, even though it was at the center of the turmoil surrounding the killing of Freddie Gray.

Becauseit was at the center of the turmoil.

“We had to be open and available for the community in need,” said Hayden, now the Librarian of Congress — the 14th and first African-American to hold the title. “We did it because in that neighborhood, like in so many others, the library is the opportunity center, and there were people who needed it, to have a safe place.”

In addition to its usual functions, the library distributed food and diapers, since stores were closed during the unrest three years ago.

Hayden will visit Chicago next week to receive the 2018 Newberry Library Award, in recognition of her lifetime of service to libraries.

Born in Florida, Hayden came to Chicago when she was 10 after her parents divorced, and graduated from South Shore High School and Roosevelt University.

She got into library work, at the Auburn branch on 79th Street, after a friend told her the library was hiring “anybody with a bachelor’s degree.” She shifted over to working at the Museum of Science and Industry while earning her master’s and doctorate from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Library Science.

Hayden, who spent 23 years in Baltimore, has seen how libraries have been transforming into community centers, even before the Internet.

“That’s a development in the making since the 1960s and 1970s,” she said. “Libraries became information centers, and that just expanded over time. Libraries are places where people go for social services, to get flu shots, where AARP is helping with taxes.”

With books so readily available online and electronically, what is known as “The Library of Things” has become a trend, with libraries checking out board games and cake pans, carpentry tools and traffic cones. A library in Winter Park, Florida, lends bicycles.

“All kinds of things,” Hayden said. “Most libraries are expanding beyond books.”

Eighty-percent of librarians are women, but Hayden became the first female Librarian of Congress in September 2016, when she began her 10-year term. She said when she spoke with Barack Obama, whom she had met in Hyde Park in the 1990s, he talked about noteworthy documents he had seen at the Library of Congress, musing that he might have special access as president, and asked her what she could do to ensure more people get to see the treasures of the library.

“My major focus is accessibility, making sure as many people know about the treasures at the library and how they can use them,” she said. “One thing I’m really really passionate about is opening up this treasure chest, the Library of Congress.”

That’s good, I said, because when I was doing research at the Library of Congress, I wasn’t even able to persuade a guard to let my boys to peer into the elaborate 1890s main reading room.

“I’m working on a young readers card,” she said, after getting a “wonderful letter” from an 8-year-old California boy, Adam Coffey, complaining about the library.

“I don’t like the fact you have to be 16 years or more,” he wrote “I’d love to visit your amazing library.”

As the first Librarian of Congress with a Twitter account, she is hoping to use the Internet to draw attention to the library and its holdings.

“What we’re doing now is making sure more people get to see and use the collection,” she said. “Technology is a wonderful tool, but the tangible object is unique. You come to Washington, D.C., you can view the contents of the Abraham Lincoln’s pockets the day he was assassinated, to the draft of Thomas Jefferson’s last version of the Declaration of Independence, to the world’s largest collection of comic books. A complete array of the wonderful and unique.”

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