Thursday, May 26, 2016

Reinventing the Librarian of Congress

Charlotte Canelli is the library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Charlotte's column in the May 26, 2016 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. 

            I visited the Library of Congress on a trip to Washington, DC in 1999 and I applied for my first LOC library card. During that first trip to the Library of Congress I was awed that I, merely a citizen of the United States, could get a library card from such an iconic American institution. I remember registration as quick and, while I managed to visit a few of the library’s research collections, I admit that I really just loved returning home with the card in my wallet.

Today in 2016, you can complete on online pre-registration application for what is now called a Library of Congress Reader Identification Card. Once you have submitted your identification (in person in Washington, D.C.), and you’ve had your photo taken, you are good to go.  You’ll receive a card that is valid for two years and it gives you access to the library’s catalog, the research areas, and the Copyright Office.

            The Library of Congress began as the research institution for the United States Congress, but today it is considered the national library of the United States. It’s a library for all of us. Most books published in the United States are catalogued are shelved in the Library of Congress’ or in its many storage locations. Exceptions are print-on-demand books and self-published works which require much more rigorous procedure for entry.  The Library’s collection also contains books published elsewhere in the world.  

The Library of Congress boasts over 838 miles of bookshelves and countless other storage devices and formats. LOC shelves include over 32 million books in dozens of languages, including a Gutenberg Bible. Many other materials are catalogued and stored there: a draft of the Declaration of Independence, and thousands of newspapers, films, and other documents, including digital ones. Proceedings of Congress are archived there and the Library of Congress supplies the audio book and braille books to Americans who are blind and physically handicapped. LC, or Library [of] Congress Classification, is used for all academic libraries and accounts for some confusion when you visit a public library! (Public libraries catalog their materials using the Dewey Decimal, sometimes better-known, system.)

            Cataloging and specifics aside, we should all be awed and thankful for the Library of Congress.      

            The Library of Congress moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800 and the first Librarian was also the clerk of the House of Representatives. There have been thirteen Librarians of Congress since 1802 (with the fourteenth currently in a temporary “acting” position.) These chief officers of the LOC have been distinguished men who have, by law, been appointed by the sitting President of the United States. Bostonian writer and poet Archibald MacLeish and historian Daniel Boorstin was Librarian for five years, 1939-1944.  In 1987, President Reagan appointed Harvard and Princeton historian James Billington who served 28 years until he resigned the appointment in 2015. Billington’s term was marked by many advancements – growth of the system, the deep and comprehensive digital presence (including the extensive website,, the National Book Festival, the Veteran’s History Project, the National Registry of Recorded Sound, and the Fiction Prize. He sought private and public funding that was unprecedented by past Librarians of Congress and he was a man of many honors and incredible intellect.

After Billington’s retirement was announced last year, librarians like me around the country began to speculate about who would succeed him. Would it be a “librarian” – one who had served and worked in a public, academic or school library and has obtained a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited graduate school of library science? All Librarians of Congress to this day, appointed since 1802, have been men. All have been white. Many have not been professional librarians.

It was with joy and pride for us, then, that President Barack Obama nominated Dr. Hayden, the CEO (or director) of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. She was the first woman, and the first African-American, and the first professional librarian since 1974.

Carla Hayden was president of the American Library Association in 2003-2004, an organization in which I am proud member. Her professional degrees, both a master’s and doctorate, are from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School where she also taught as an assistant professor. She began her actual career in 1973 as a children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library. By 1991 she was a step below the first in command as deputy commissioner and chief librarian. Two years later, she left for the position of CEO at the public library in Baltimore where she led that institution, revitalized it, and remains today.

Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library serves a population of over 622,000 citizens. In addition to books, media, and other materials to loan, the main library and its 21 branches and bookmobiles have over 600 computers just for public use. Millions of people visit the libraries every year and hundreds of thousands of children and families are served in its youth services departments. At the Enoch Pratt Free Library, you can even order your groceries from a Baltimore ShopRite grocery story and have then delivered to the library for Saturday pick up! You can also hear Carla’s Picks, the CEO’s book recommendations on Baltimore's local radio stations, WYPR and WBAL.

As President of the American Library Association (2003-2004), Dr. Hayden was vocal in opposing the Patriot Act. Among her other goals were ensuring that access to all people of the United States to its public librarians would be safeguarded.  In 1995, Carla Hayden was named the National Librarian of the Year Award by our professional magazine, Library Journal. Last month, in March, she was named one of fifty of Fortune Magazine’s 2016 World’s greatest leaders.

 These, and other accomplishments, have earned Carla Hayden the respect of all of us in the library community. Others, including the Obamas and many in the Senate and House, feel the same. Dr. Hayden’s confirmation hearing on April 20th was watched by thousands of librarians across the country who are championing her. We wait for the final word, hopefully this summer, when this intelligent and accomplished librarian’s appointment as Librarian of Congress will be proud day for American librarians.