This is a story about a young girl who saw herself in a picture book for the first time—and went on to great prominence in our nation.
It’s a story of the power of books, libraries, and librarians—and, by extension, the perverse acknowledgment of that power in the attempts to block it by a growing and extremely dangerous segment of Americans.
Carla Hayden is our current Librarian of Congress. The first woman and the first African-American to hold that position, she was appointed to her ten-year term by former President Barack Obama in 2016.
Some Information About the Library of Congress (LOC)
It began in 1800 and received a large boost in 1815 when Thomas Jefferson sold the LOC his 6500-volume personal library.
Jefferson’s storied library was, of course, diverse, in part because he felt there was no subject that a member of Congress would not need to learn about.
He had categorized his books into three groups: memory, reason, and imagination. There are now 26 areas of study, but Jefferson’s original design remains a cornerstone of the LOC classification system.
When the British burned the Capitol in 1814, some of the library’s books were purportedly used to start the fire. That fire provided the impetus for rebuilding a reference library for members of Congress.
The Congressional Research Service is renowned for the quality of its holdings and staff. (I think the plaudits may even be bipartisan.)
In 1851, there was another fire, which was attributed to a faulty chimney flue. Due to various factors, it took more than four decades before a new structure, the Thomas Jefferson Building, opened in 1897. It was the first federal building to have electricity.
That beautiful building was modeled on an Italian palace—to show, according to Hayden, that in this country, “we build palaces to knowledge and not to people.”
At present, the Library of Congress covers 800 miles of book shelves—and growing. It contains more than 171 million items: 32 million books in 470 languages, millions of photos, audio recordings, and films, the papers of 23 former Presidents, and such “treasures” as the Gutenberg Bible and Abraham Lincoln’s bible.
I had the pleasure of spending more than an hour getting to know about Carla Hayden and her accomplishments via a podcast called “The Oath.”
Chuck Rosenberg, the podcast’s host, was formerly a US attorney, Senior FBI official, and Acting Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. He’s a frequent media commenter on legal matters.
In selecting interviewees for The Oath, Rosenberg chooses people who have demonstrated their devotion to public service. Hence, the podcast’s title.
Hayden’s parents were both musicians, but she acknowledges that it became clear early on that she hadn’t inherited her parents’ talents. She did, however, love reading and books from an early age, and they encouraged her in these pursuits.
“She Looked Like Me…”
One of the books that opened her eyes to the larger world, she said, was Bright April. Its author, Marguerite de Angeli, was a prize-winning children’s book author and illustrator who depicted children who might have been considered outside the mainstream.
To Carla Hayden, the young Black girl in Bright April was a revelation. “She looked like me,” Hayden recalled. “She had pigtails; I had pigtails. She was a Brownie Scout; I was a Brownie Scout. Her home had a piano. My home had a piano.” She lived in a similar neighborhood.
April was a happy child most of the time; her disposition was the source of her name and the book’s title. Though her Brownie troop was integrated, when some new girls joined, she experienced racial prejudice from one of them.
As Hayden relates to Rosenberg, the child asked her mother: “Why doesn’t she like me? She doesn’t even know me.”
The mother responded that sometimes people look only on the outside of a person and don’t spend the time to find out more.
Simple. Direct. Trenchantly telling. Bright April was published in 1946, the first children’s book to discuss racial prejudice. It was banned in the South, and its author received hate mail. (De Angeli, it’s worth noting, also wrote books about an Asian child, a Jewish child, a disabled child—at a time when others did not.)
I immediately thought about the forces who have manipulated the concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) into a cudgel to deprive all children from learning age-appropriate lessons about this dark side of our nation.
One of the books banned recently was Ruby Bridges’ description of her experiences desegregating her elementary school in Louisiana in 1960. That is probably a more realistic view than the one Marguerite de Angeli presented in 1946.
But Bright April inspired Carla Hayden. In fact, she borrowed the book from her local library so many times that she incurred fines. “That was my first experience with library management,” she recalled wryly. “I had to use my hamburger and candy money to repay those fines. I learned my lesson.”
With family support, her own love of learning, and a vision of how to use libraries to help others, she has risen to a position in which she took her oath of office with her hand on Abraham Lincoln’s bible.
A Life of Public Service
Her impressive career includes having served as the chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library and as an assistant professor for Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. She also served as president of the American Library Association.
She was CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, a once-renowned institution that had fallen into disrepair over time as white flight and lack of resources took their toll on the city.
Hayden regarded the rebuilding of that library system as her personal mandate: an opportunity to apply her long-held belief that libraries are the “people’s university,” providing information and resources otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhoods.
In 2015, Baltimore was roiled by the death of a Black man, Freddie Gray, who died of spinal injuries in police custody. When the police refused to answer questions, riots ensued.
The library branch in the area of the violence had become the “nerve center and information center for the community,” Hayden said. It was a two-story building with beautiful glass windows.
In view of the violence, some people wanted to board up the building and keep it closed to the public. But the librarian in charge persuaded Hayden that it was both symbolically and substantively important not to board up the library–and to open its doors the next day.
During the night, community members stood watch so that no one would deface the building. In the morning, the library opened on time.
A young man waiting outside came in and expressed his gratitude, saying he’d needed to use the computers to prepare a job resume. He stopped by two days later to say he’d been invited to interview for that position.
After the unrest, the library became a food center. Classes were held there. It was a hub for reporters covering events.
Rosenberg asked Hayden if the decision to open that morning had been difficult. Her response: based on the community’s protection of the building during the night, she felt confident that it was important to open the doors.
Hayden received much praise for her foresight in making that decision. A year later, President Obama came calling.
She wondered aloud what she could bring to this position.
The President answered:
“I’ve seen the contents of Abraham Lincoln’s pockets after he was assassinated. I’ve seen all of these treasures at the Library of Congress. I think that’s because of who I am now. What can you do to make sure that all these treasures are open to the general public?”
Under her guidance, the Library of Congress began reaching out to teachers to encourage their use of its resources. It has been expanding the online digitizing of its books, collections of Presidential papers, and other massive holdings.
“People who can’t physically visit can mine the collections,” Hayden said. “The Rosa Parks Collection, her personal papers—all those things are now available online.” There’s “a learning lab for the young and young at heart.” A “Treasures Gallery,” contains such documents as George Washington’s inauguration address written in his own hand.
There will soon be a new orientation center for visitors featuring Jefferson’s library, expanding the virtual experience.
If anyone is interested, the “By the People” campaign seeks volunteers to help transcribe documents. More than 2 million items have already been transcribed via this program.
“We can use all the help we can get,” Hayden said. Volunteers include senior citizens who are valuable because they’re more adept at interpreting cursive writing than succeeding generations who’ve been deprived of this skill! Contact crowd.loc.gov.
“Of the People,” Hayden said, is a new grants program “to help people not only understand their own history but share those histories with others.”
It offers community grants for various creative programs to individuals, non-profits, and higher education entities such as libraries, archives, and museums.
When asked about the future of libraries, Hayden focused on attracting young people to curating and creating in the new digital world. They can capture and make history themselves, exciting future generations, she said.
“They’re born digital. [it’s] exciting: we’re able to recruit more tech-savvy young people. We’re very pleased they’re taking this on and seeing it is something that they can pay forward.”
Placing her love for learning and her devotion to learners in the context of the Library of Congress’s vast treasures, she said:
“All these materials are wonderful. We care for them, but they’re there to be used.”
Amid the anger and hatred and fear in America today, I welcomed this hour spent with a woman who has concretely addressed the needs of people throughout our nation—and continues to do so.
Carla Hayden speaks with pride about the influences that helped shape her into the valuable leadership role she holds today.
And one of those influences was Bright April, the children’s book that enabled her to see herself in a new and sharper light.
Rosenberg ended the podcast by thanking Dr. Carla Hayden.
“Carla and her talented staff work to make the Library of Congress more accessible, more meaningful, more relevant, more modern, and more welcoming—as librarians do throughout this country and the world.
“Thank goodness for librarians—and for libraries.”
A Fraught Time for Librarians and Libraries
The individuals and institutions are increasingly under attack.
All the things Hayden has accomplished are the antithesis of the way the reactionary forces want America to be. Knowledge, creativity, inclusivity, books themselves are being targeted and censored.
The New York Times has reported:
“As highly visible and politicized book bans have exploded across the country, librarians have found themselves on the front lines of an acrimonious culture war, with their careers and their personal reputations at risk.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism, tweeted on July 9, 2022:
“They go after librarians and educators because authoritarians fear independent thinking, creativity, and imagination. The Fascist slogan was ‘Believe, Obey, and Fight.’ Also applies to the GOP, which has declared half the population its political enemies.”
Moms for Liberty, a group that gained prominence by censoring children’s books, has grown significantly since its founding in 2021 and intends to be a strong political force in the 2022 elections.
Does anyone share my concerns that an unthinkable Republican win in 2022 would increase these attacks on libraries—and that a Republican Congress would most likely slash funds for the Library of Congress and grill Carla Hayden for her admirable goals and innovative programs?
One more reason that citizen activism is crucial–today!