In this, the final year of his tenure, President Obama seems as determined as ever to divide America by race and gender, and to push the nation backwards to a past where race and gender were dominating considerations in employment, academia, politics, and culture. Unfortunately, President Obama sees life through the same divisive lens, emphasizing differences of race and gender at virtually every opportunity.
The most recent manifestation of this crimped vision is his nomination of Dr. Carla D. Hayden as the 14th librarian of Congress.
Obama took the occasion to proudly announce:
If confirmed, Dr. Hayden would be the first woman and the first African American to hold the position — both of which are long overdue.
It’s as though his administration has an unofficial quota system.
As its website proclaims, the Library of Congress “occupies a unique place in American civilization.” It was established on April 24, 1800, when President John Adams approved legislation to purchase “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed a law establishing the post of “Librarian of Congress.” When the British burned the capitol in 1814, they destroyed the 3,000 volumes that had already been acquired by the Library. The then-retired President Jefferson sold his personal library to Congress to “recommence” the library.
At the time, his 6,487 volumes were “the largest and finest” book collection in the country — and those books can still be seen at the Library of Congress today in a special exhibit.
It was the acquisition of Jefferson’s collection that started the expansion of the library from simply being a library for Congress. It is America’s national library — and more. It holds more than 15 million books, 39 million manuscripts, 13 million photographs, four million maps, three-and-a-half million pieces of music, and a half-million motion pictures. More than 450 languages are represented in its collections and research materials. In sum, it is the depository of the history, literature, and culture of our nation, and of much of the world, as well.
Yet according to the president, among the chief qualifications for the office of Librarian of Congress — the chief administrator of the world’s largest library — are color and gender.
Dr. Hayden is certainly a knowledgeable and experienced librarian. Her Ph.D. is in library science. She has served as CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, since 1993 and was president of the American Library Association from 2003-2004.
But the library’s enormous staff (3,244) already numbers countless credentialed librarians — the institution is hardly in need of another. That’s why the post of librarian of Congress has long been filled not by librarians, but by first-rank scholars and historians of national reputation. The librarian of Congress is in effect the nation’s “scholar-in-chief.”
One of the most prestigious posts in government, it has traditionally been home to distinguished scholars like Archibald MacLeish, Daniel J. Boorstin, and the recently retired incumbent, James H. Billington. MacLeish, who served from 1939 to 1944, was a poet and writer whom Franklin Roosevelt called “a scholarly man of letters.” He was a fitting librarian, according to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, because the Library of Congress “is not merely a library.”
Boorstin, who served as librarian from 1975 to 1987, was a Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar with a law degree from Yale. A prolific scholar of the American experience, Boorstin wrote more than 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. (A bibliography of his works runs 272 pages long.) The final book in his trilogy, The Americans, won the Pulitzer Prize. Prior to his appointment as librarian he was the senior historian and director of the National Museum of History and Technology at the Smithsonian Institution (now the National Museum of American History). The Senate confirmed him without debate.
Billington, librarian from 1987 to 2015, was also a Rhodes scholar. He earned his Ph.D. at Oxford and taught history at Harvard and Princeton for more than 15 years. He has authored five books and dozens of scholarly articles. Before his appointment as librarian, he served 14 years as the director of the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Dr. Hayden, however, appears to be neither a scholar nor a historian. She has edited one book, “Venture into Cultures: A Resource Book of Multicultural Materials and Programs.” That 1992 publication is described as “an annotated bibliography of culturally diverse materials.”
According to President Obama, he has known Dr. Hayden “since her days working at the Chicago Public Library.”
The Librarians of Congress have been keepers of American memory, and public advocates for American cultural greatness. This is not a sinecure — like the post of United States treasurer — to be doled out to members of a politically favored demographic. It is not a patronage reward for friends of a president. And the appointment does not expire with Obama’s presidency. The next librarian could potentially serve for a decade, the statutory limit established under the Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015.
None of this is intended as a knock on Dr. Hayden. She may well have excelled at her previous and current jobs, and there may be jobs within the Library of Congress for which she is well-qualified — just not this job. The post of librarian of Congress is of vital importance to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life. Whether someone is black, white, or any color in-between, or whether they are a woman or a man should not be a consideration at all in determining who is the best scholar to fill this post.
The first and only consideration should be whether that individual has the outstanding qualifications needed to be only the 14th librarian in our nation’s history to take over the reins of the nation’s premier historical, cultural, and research institution, a place where retired librarian James Billington says scholars and all Americans engage in “the unleashed, unlimited pursuit of truth.”
Before voting on Dr. Hayden’s confirmation, senators should think long and hard about whether the library should be pillar of scholarship or a monument to political correctness.