The top librarian position in the United States is arguably the Librarian of Congress. The turnover in this position is quite low, as there have only been thirteen since the role was established in 1802. That was because the role didn’t end – the Librarian could continue to serve even with a change of administration.
However, recent legislation refines that. The “Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015” limits the automatic length of an appointment, although subsequent presidents can continue to reappoint the existing Librarian for another ten-year term.
The new Librarian of Congress
Dr. Carla Hayden was just confirmed as the 14th Librarian of Congress, and she differs from her predecessors in a few ways. Most notably, she is the first woman and the first African-American to be appointed to the role.
As a career librarian, Hayden brings the strongest library experience compared to all of her predecessors. Most recently, she was CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. She holds a doctorate in library science from the University of Chicago, served as American Library Association President in 2003–2004 and has been on the National Museum and Library Services Board since 2010.
According to Jocelyn McNamara, Client Engagement Manager with LAC Federal:
“It’s a strength that Hayden has practical library management experience. She is expected to continue to modernize the institution, reduce waste, and improve coordination and communication among departments.”
Very few of her predecessors were professional librarians. Herbert Putnam, the 8th and longest-serving Librarian at 40 years, had been a librarian for the Minneapolis Public Library. Lawrence Mumford, the 11th person to be appointed, worked for the New York Public Library and Cleveland Public Library. Otherwise, the role has been held by lawyers, authors, publishers, journalists, a political campaign manager and even a physician.
Hayden is also the first Librarian of Congress appointed since the birth of the web in 1989. She officially takes over from Dr. James Billington, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and served until his retirement in 2015. Law Librarian of Congress David Mao recently served during the interim.
The Librarian of Congress role
Hayden is now director of one of the largest libraries in the world, second only to the British Library in collection size. According to the LOC website, the Library contains over 800 linear miles of shelves holding more than 162 million items. Approximately 12,000 items are added to the Library’s collections daily. In addition to overseeing the Library, the Librarian of Congress is responsible for the department that manages the US copyright system. Technically, the Library is an agency of the US Congress, and only congressional members and their staff are allowed to check out books. Founded in 1800, it is the country’s oldest federal cultural institution.
New Librarian challenges and opportunities
Hayden is credited with modernizing Baltimore’s library system, experience that will serve her well in her new role. It’s well-known that the Library of Congress is not operating with a modern technology infrastructure. While it was an early leader in adopting the Internet, the Library failed to keep up as digital technology rapidly evolved. A Government Accountability Office report issued in 2015 was critical of the Library, citing outdated systems and library mismanagement and faulting former Librarian Billington for failing to hire a chief information officer.
The organization is also facing a staffing crisis. With essentially no middle management level and many senior managers preparing to retire, the pool of experienced managers and administrators available to quickly step up and fill those roles is limited.
Meanwhile, relentless growth of its physical and digital collections is straining the institution’s budget and staff, leading to recommendations for the Library to reform its collection polices. For example, by law, the Library receives two copies of every copyright-protected work published in the United States.
High hopes for Hayden
Hayden is being hailed as an excellent choice for Librarian of Congress. She was confirmed 74-18 by the Senate, with Republican-led dissension and delay attributed to political posturing. One concern cited was her opposition to parts of the Patriot Act seen as a privacy concern for library users during her American Library Association presidency. Hayden was endorsed by the ALA as well as several other library, technology and entertainment trade associations.
According to Jonathan Barney, Client Engagement Manager,
“Besides the Library’s shortcomings in managing its vast IT resources, divisions have been semi-autonomous, with differing approaches to solving issues, creating a silo effect. Dr. Hayden’s library management experience will be invaluable in coordinating resources and sharing knowledge across the Library.”
While some people believe the position should be reserved for scholars, practicing librarians are happy to see somebody with Hayden’s credentials and work experience confirmed – she’s one of us. The Library of Congress has been an LAC Federal client for many years. We congratulate Dr. Carla Hayden and look forward to being part of the extended team that will help implement and administer her new plans.