9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden

Shawn Miller, Library of Congress
Shawn Miller, Library of Congress

Established in 1800 in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress is the world’s largest library. Their Congressional Research Service helps members of Congress conduct research on U.S. laws and policies, but the public is also free to visit and browse items from the library’s impressive collection. The institution employs thousands of people, from curators and archivists to IT specialists, but only one person—the Librarian of Congress—is appointed by the president to oversee the entire operation. Today, Dr. Carla Hayden serves as the 14th (and first female and African-American) Librarian of Congress. Mental Floss spoke to Hayden to learn the ins and outs of her job as Librarian-in-Chief, from her work defending democracy to her love of the library’s spinach smoothies.

1. HER OFFICE VIEW IS KILLER.

Before becoming Librarian of Congress in 2016, Hayden served as the CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, the president of the American Library Association, and deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library. But her current gig arguably has the biggest perks, including the view from her office window.

Located on Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress comprises three structures, known as the Jefferson, Madison, and Adams Buildings. “The Madison Building [is] where my day to day office is,” Hayden tells Mental Floss. “I’m facing the magnificent Jefferson building … and immediately to the left is the U.S. Capitol,” she says. “It really makes a wonderful visual synergy of those institutions.”

2. WATCHING MOVIES IS PART OF HER JOB DESCRIPTION.

Carla Hayden looking at a film reel with an expert at the Culpepper Library of Congress campus,
Hayden with an expert at the Culpeper campus.
Shawn Miller, Library of Congress

Although books and manuscripts are essential to the library, films are important, too, as documents that reflect American society, culture, and history. Each year, the National Film Preservation Board makes recommendations to Hayden for the 25 films that should be added to the National Film Registry, and she and members of the Film Board then make the final choices.

The library even has a separate building in Culpeper, Virginia—the Packard Campus—devoted to preserving culturally significant films, TV and radio shows, and sound recordings. “I got a chance to visit and spend the day there,” Hayden says. “I was able to see the different rooms that are used to preserve audio recordings and films. When I was there they were looking at Jerry Lewis’s home movies.”

The Packard Campus even hosts film showings. Hayden explains: “It has wonderful public programs in a magnificent film theater that is state-of-the-art with a pipe organ and even a popcorn machine.”

3. SHE LOVES EXPERTS.

Hayden’s duties require her to oversee the library’s massive collection—as well as its 3149 full-time staff members. “The Librarian of Congress works with a variety of people who are specialists in so many fields,” Hayden explains. “You have people who speak several languages, who are specialists in French literature or Lithuanian history. There’s such a variety of expertise and talent at the library.” Hayden adds that her favorite part of her job is working with the expert staff members. “Every time I interact with them, I learn a lot. You’re almost a professional student,” she says.

4. SHE READS ON HER COMMUTE.

Because Hayden lives in Baltimore, Maryland and commutes to D.C. for work, she sometimes uses her transit time for one of her favorite activities—reading. (Depending on her schedule and what’s happening at work, Hayden either drives or takes the train.) “Right now on the train, which I’ve been experimenting with even more, it [takes] an hour. And that’s a good time to read and reflect, and on the way home, relax,” she says.

Although Hayden says that she doesn’t have as much time as she’d like to devote to reading for pleasure, she admits that the line between reading for pleasure and reading for work can overlap. “Some of the reading that I’m doing for work—like more about the founding fathers and mothers—that is actually interesting [to me] because I’m a history and political science major from undergraduate,” she says. A few of Hayden’s favorite books include Bright April, a children’s book by Marguerite de Angeli, and The Historian As Detective by Robin W. Winks.

5. SHE APPOINTS THE U.S. POET LAUREATE AND OVERSEES COPYRIGHT.

Hayden’s duties are multifaceted: She appoints the U.S. Poet Laureate, helps choose the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and appoints the Register of the U.S. Copyright Office (located in the Library’s Madison Building), among other responsibilities. How does she choose the recipients of such lofty titles? By consulting with experts, of course. “The library is very fortunate to have wonderful advisory committees and people who help with different suggestions for [Poet Laureate and Gershwin Prize] selections,” she says.

As for copyright, Hayden says: “The Register is responsible for managing the process of copyright and also for advising Congress on the legal aspects of copyright.” Hayden also makes sure the Copyright Office has the resources it needs so that it is run efficiently. “The Librarian does not advise on the legal aspects—that’s the expertise of the Register,” she says.

6. SHE WANTS TO MAKE BEING A LIBRARIAN COOL.

In an interview with CBS This Morning in 2016, Hayden explained one of her goals as Librarian of Congress: “We want to make sure that history is fun and people see the [librarian] profession as something that is desirable.”

Part of making history fun is making it accessible to millions of people, whether they’re able to visit the library or not. One way to modernize the library is to use social media to connect with people around the U.S.—and world. “I am the first Librarian [of Congress] to tweet, and since my swearing in I have 10,000 followers,” she told CBS. Today, she has more than 45,000 followers.

7. SHE LOVED HER SWEARING-IN CEREMONY.

Carla Hayden at her swearing-in ceremony
Shawn Miller, Library of Congress

In September 2016, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts delivered an oath to Hayden as Speaker Paul Ryan and Hayden's mother stood beside her. As Hayden explains, the support from her soon-to-be staff is what stands out for her about her swearing-in ceremony: “There were so many staff members who were there in the mezzanine section, in particular, and they were clapping and cheering and had a welcome sign. That was such a wonderful feeling to know that the staff members were enthusiastic,” she says. Hayden fondly recalls meeting approximately 400 staff members who came to her ceremony. “It was really something. That was a big hearty welcome. I was really touched.”

8. SHE ENJOYS THE LIBRARY’S SPINACH SMOOTHIES.

People think of the library as a scholarly place, with its reading rooms, exhibits, and guided tours. But librarians and library visitors have to eat, too. The library offers several dining options, including the Madison Café, Jefferson Coffee Shop, and Madison Snack Bar (with a Subway and Dunkin Donuts). And if you visit the library and stop to have lunch, you might just run into the Librarian-in-Chief. “I love the Madison Café,” Hayden says. “There’s a Korean bowl that I’m pretty partial to, and now I’m doing the spinach smoothie. The variety is really good and you can bump into a Congressperson or staffer. It’s a nice cafeteria.”

9. HER JOB HELPS HER DEFEND DEMOCRACY.

In a 2016 interview with PBS NewsHour, Hayden explained that because libraries promote literacy and let everyone access information, they affirm freedom, democracy, and equality. “Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone,” Hayden has said.

The Library of Congress also strives to be a role model for all libraries, serving as an example of how libraries can bolster freedom of thought, bring books into the digital age, and help people access valuable information.“Health information is just about the number one thing that people go into public libraries and connect to public libraries for. They’re also looking for information about things that can make their lives better,” Hayden tells PBS. “It’s a great equalizer.”

11 Secrets of Lexicographers

Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images
Fotokresba/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster defines a lexicographer as “an author or editor of a dictionary.” The job sounds simple enough, but the work that goes into researching and writing definitions like the one above takes a unique combination of skills. Lexicographers have to be passionate about words without being pretentious, knowledgeable without being overeducated, and analytic enough to treat language like a science while being creative enough to define tricky words like art and love.

To learn more about what goes into being a lexicographer, Mental Floss spoke with a few from the world’s top dictionaries. Here’s what they had to say about where they find new words, what goes into the editing process, and how they really feel about defining literally as “figuratively.”

1. Being a lexicographer doesn't require a specific degree.

There are a number of different paths you can take to get into lexicography. Most people who write and edit dictionaries come from some sort of humanities background, but there’s usually no specific degree or training required to become a lexicographer. Emily Brewster, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster since 2000, double-majored in linguistics and philosophy. She tells Mental Floss, “A lot of people have an English background. There are some editors who have linguistic backgrounds. But really, when your job is defining the vocabulary of the English language, expertise in any field can apply. We have science editors, we have people who are specialists in chemistry, specialists in law, so any kind of expertise can make you a better definer.”

According to Jesse Sheidlower, a lexicographer who worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Random House Dictionaries, an education with a focus on lexicography specifically can actually be a turn-off for employers. “There was a university that once offered a degree in lexicography, but no dictionary house would ever hire someone with a degree in lexicography [...] In general, the people who are going to be teaching it that way are probably not experienced practical lexicographers, and the kind of things you need to do the job are rather different than what academics would study if you were studying lexicography.” Students studying lexicography at Université de Lorraine in France, for example, learn about etymology, polysemy (the existence of multiple meanings for one word), and lexicological analysis. A class can provide helpful background on the subject, but it won't necessarily equip learners with the skills and instincts they need to find and define new words.

Too much education, regardless of the subject, can also hurt someone’s chances of working for a dictionary. “In general you want someone with some but not too much training in some kind of general humanities discipline," Sheidlower says. "Not someone with a Ph.D., because people with Ph.D.s tend to think you can spend the rest of your life studying things, and when you’re actually working for a dictionary you have a list of 50 things you have to get done by the end of the week. The fact that one of them or all of them might be super interesting doesn’t mean you can spend three weeks studying the same thing.”

2. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are "proper."

The role of dictionaries is largely misunderstood by the public. Lexicographers don’t decide which words are valid and dictate how they should be used. Rather, they find the words that already exist and do their best to represent how they’re being used in the real world. “This is something non-lexicographers in particular have problems with,” Sheidlower says. “But the role of a dictionary is not to say what is correct in any sort of sense handed down from above. It is to say what is in use in language, and if people are using something different from how it’s used traditionally, that thing is going to go in regardless of whether or not you like it.”

3. Lexicographers know their decisions can create controversy—and not always for the reasons you’d think.

Even if lexicographers don’t think of themselves as linguistic gatekeepers, many people see still them that way. That can cause controversy when a word or definition makes it into the dictionary that people don’t approve of. One recent example is the inclusion of the word they in Merriam-Webster as a non-binary pronoun. “That’s been getting a tremendous amount of attention,” Sheidlower says. But as he explains, the dictionary didn’t make up the usage—it simply acknowledged its existence. “Singular they goes back to the 14th century—even nonbinary they goes back to the 18th century. ... New isn’t necessarily bad, but those things aren’t new.”

Words that fall outside sensitive social and political arenas can also stir outrage. A classic example is defining literally to mean "figuratively." “People hate that, they hate it so much,” Brewster says. “But it’s old, it’s established, and if we didn’t enter it, we’d be saying the word is not used this way, and the word is used this way and it’s been used this way since Charles Dickens. It’s not really our place to make a judgement if a word or a use is a good word. Our job is to report words that are established in the language.”

4. Lexicographers add hundreds of new words to the dictionary each year ...

Language is constantly evolving, which means that a lexicographer’s job never ends. Brewster estimates that roughly 1000 words are added to Merriam-Webster.com each year, including new senses of existing words. The most recent batch consisted of 533 new terms and uses, ranging from highly specific words like non-rhotic (the Bostonian habit of not pronouncing the letter r unless it’s followed by a vowel) to Instagram-friendly slang like vacay.

5. ... But lexicographers also have to be choosy.

More new words enter the lexicon each year than can fit between the covers of even the most comprehensive dictionary. To give readers an up-to-date picture of the English language without overworking themselves, lexicographers have to be selective about which words make the cut. As Brewster explains, every word that goes into the Merriam-Webster dictionary meets certain criteria. “We have to have significant evidence of a word in use over an extended period of time,” she says.

Those standards are a little vague for a reason. Taking the popularity and staying power of a new word into consideration, editors get to decide what counts as “significant evidence” and an “extended period of time” for themselves.

Brewster elaborates, “For example, the verb tweet as in the Twitter sense erupted very suddenly in the language. So that was a case in which very quickly it became clear that our readers were going to be served by having this term be defined. You can contrast that with a term like adorkable, it requires a longer amount of time before it meets that criteria of being in the language for an extended period of time because we don’t want to enter words that nobody’s going to be using in five years.”

6. Lexicographers struggle with words like love.

Lexicography is methodical and scientific work most of the time, but it can get subjective. If you’ve ever had trouble defining a term without using a related word, chances are whoever wrote its entry in the dictionary encountered the same problem. “A term like art or poetry or love, these are notoriously hard to define because their meanings are extremely broad. You can’t pin it down,” Sheidlower says. “The word itch is very hard to define. Trying to define the word itch without using the word scratch is very difficult. I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.” (In case you were wondering, Merriam-Webster defines itch as “an uneasy irritating sensation in the upper surface of the skin usually held to result from mild stimulation of pain receptors.” Pretty spot-on.)

7. Lexicographers rarely argue over words.

If you’re looking to have spirited debates over the value of certain words with your fellow language enthusiasts, lexicography may not be the career for you. Most of the work is done in silence in front of a computer, and conflicts that get more passionate than a politely worded email are rare. “People think we sit around a table and argue about the merits of a word. Or say, ‘Yeah, this word should get in!’ Or ‘Yeah, this word should never get in,’” Brewster says. ”It’s actually very quiet, solitary work. You can make a case for a word, but it’s all in writing. So when I draft a definition for a word, I will say that we have evidence of it dating back as far back as this date, and it’s appeared in all these different types of publications. We’re not very emotional about these things. I think we’re much more biologists than pundits.”

8. Several lexicographers look at each entry.

Putting together a dictionary is collaborative work. According to Brewster, a single word entry must go through several editors before it’s ready for publication. As a definer—what most people think of when they think of a lexicographer—she sets the process in motion. “Being a general definer, my job is to define all the non-technical vocabulary in the language. But that varies really broadly, from economics terms, like a definition for dark money, to pronouns, to prepositions, and also informal terms, like say twerking.”

After she drafts a definition, it also goes through the cross-reference editor (the person who makes sure any other relevant entries are addressed), the pronunciation editor, the etymologist (who traces the word's historical origins), the person who keys it into the system, the copy editor, and the proofreader.

9. Lexicographers promise they aren’t judging the way you speak.

You may assume that someone who makes a living defining words is a stickler for language rules. But lexicographers might understand better than anyone that there’s no one right way to speak English, and the “correct” version of any language is determined by its speakers. “Sometimes when people learn that I work on a dictionary, they worry that I am judging how they write or speak, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Erin McKean, the lexicographer in charge of the online dictionary Wordnik, tells Mental Floss. “I love English, and I love all the different ways to speak and write English. I'm much more likely to ask you to make up a word for me than I am to criticize the words you use!” So if you find yourself in a conversation with a dictionary editor, feel free to use slang and mix up farther and further—you’re in a safe space.

10. Don't ask lexicographers to pick a favorite word.

Lexicographers know more words than the average person, but if you ask them to pick a favorite, they may decline to answer. "You’re not allowed to play favorites," Sheidlower says. "You have to put in words that you dislike, you can’t spend more time researching words that you do like. It’s not personal [...] Just like if you’re a parent, you’re not allowed to say that one child is your favorite, which is generally the metaphor lexicographers will use when they’re asked that question."

11. The internet makes a lexicographer’s job easier.

For most of the job’s history, lexicographers found new words by reading as many books as possible. Reading is still an important part of their work, but thanks to the internet, they have a greater variety of materials to pull from than ever. Emily Brewster mentions Google Books and online corpora—collections of text excerpts from different places, sometimes related to a particular subject—as some of her favorite sources for researching new words and their definitions and origins. But her most reliable resource is a popular social media site. “I really like Twitter in general,” Brewster says. “From Twitter, I get to a huge variety of sources. It’s a really good network for connecting with all kinds of publications.”

Buckingham Palace Used to Have a Bar For Its Staff—Until They Started Getting Really Drunk

Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a member of the royal family to enjoy some of Buckingham Palace’s spectacular perks. According to Insider, the staff has its own gym, swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, choir, book club, and 24-hour confidential counseling services.

They even used to have a private bar, but management was forced to shut it down after staff members kept getting too drunk. Insider reports that Dickie Arbiter, the Queen’s former press secretary, shared the not-so-posh tidbit in a new documentary called Secrets of the Royal Palaces, which is airing on the UK’s Channel 5 this month.

It’s not clear if a few irresponsible employees ruined it for everyone or if there was reckless over-imbibing across the board. Were the famously stoic Buckingham Palace guards among the guilty? We’ll probably never know—Arbiter kept his comments on the matter concise and rather vague, explaining that staff had gotten “too worse for wear,” so “they had to get rid” of the bar.

Though it’s highly unlikely that the 93-year-old queen was tossing back tequila shots with her ladies-in-waiting, she has been known to enjoy an alcoholic beverage from time to time. Her drink of choice is gin mixed with Dubonnet, and her former chef Darren McGrady told CNN that she also occasionally indulges in a glass of German sweet wine with dinner. “Just in the evening,” he emphasized. “She certainly doesn’t drink four glasses a day.”

Perhaps the possibly brief, definitely wondrous life of the Buckingham Palace staff bar will be covered in a later season of Netflix’s The Crown.

[h/t Insider]

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