9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden
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.
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.
It was fun to have 4-year-old Daliyah Marie Arana of Gainesville, GA as "Librarian For The Day." She's already read more than a 1,000 books. pic.twitter.com/MQfwlUrakO
— Carla Hayden (@LibnOfCongress) January 11, 2017
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.
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.”