In his statement nominating Carla Hayden to become the librarian of Congress, President Obama didn’t even try to sell Dr. Hayden as a distinguished scholar, author, historian, or public intellectual. The president had no choice. Any claim that Hayden possessed credentials that match those of her distinguished predecessors over the last 40 years would have been dismissed as false.
The video commercial about Hayden that the White House released the same day also made no such claims. And yes, you read that right: the White House produced a political, campaign-style commercial touting her candidacy: “I’m Carla Hayden, a nominee to be the 14th Librarian of Congress,” she announces.
The camera follows Hayden as she walks through the Baltimore public library and greets patrons standing at a card catalog (does the library still use printed catalog cards?). The camera pans to men standing in front of a row of desktop computers as they presumably apply for jobs online. Then the commercial shows blighted neighborhoods in Baltimore.
This seems unprecedented. There appears to be no other case in which a presidential nominee has actually appeared in an ad to lobby the Senate for her confirmation.
Who produced it, what did it cost, and who paid for it? The American taxpayer? Why was it made?
The answer to the last question is obvious. The mere existence of the commercial is a tip-off that the White House knows Hayden is a weak candidate who lacks the credentials that the public — and, more importantly, the United States Congress (it is, after all, the Library of Congress) — have come to expect from a librarian of Congress. Thus, Obama handlers have tried to boost the odds of winning confirmation through an unprecedented public relations stunt.
That was unwise, for the video turns out to be more revealing than the White House could have imagined. Indeed, Hayden’s own words make a compelling case against her confirmation. Her misguided vision for the Library is simplistic, wrong-headed, and alarming.
In her White House video, Hayden describes her experience in Baltimore:
The neighborhood libraries were opportunity centers. An opportunity to get the latest Harry Potter as soon as it came out, a place that you could apply for a job … and a place that you could find that step up in your life.
That statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the Library of Congress (LOC). Hayden seems to think of the LOC as just another neighborhood branch library, merely on a larger scale. It isn’t. The LOC is not a local library that loans books to the public.
No one can check out “the latest Harry Potter,” or for that matter any book, from the LOC.
Nor is the LOC an online job-search center. Again, local libraries can do this, as they have apparently done in Baltimore. Nor is the Library of Congress the place “to find that step up in your life” — whatever that means.
It sounds like Hayden is lobbying for another term as president of the American Library Association, not the position of librarian of Congress.
Hayden claims the Library of Congress “epitomizes what libraries are in every community.” Hayden is wrong. The LOC does not “epitomize” what every community library is, nor should it be treated as a community library. It is a unique institution with several specific and special missions that is not like other libraries.
First, it serves the research needs of its principal client, the United States Congress. The scholarly research that the library staff produces for members of the House of Representatives and the Senate on an annual basis is enormous.
Second, it serves as one of the finest research libraries in the world for American scholars and for international scholars who travel here. That is one of the many reasons why, for the last forty years, the librarians of Congress have been important scholars and historians in their own right.
Third, the LOC’s mission is to preserve its vast holdings for future generations.
Neither President Obama’s nominating statement nor Dr. Hayden’s comment says one word about her ability to sponsor and inspire cutting-edge research; about her ability to attract scholars from around the world to the Library of Congress; about her ability to enhance the collections in content and subject matter; about her plans for innovative conferences, symposia, and exhibitions; or her plans to revive the National Book Festival, the LOC’s signature event, which has suffered cutbacks and decline during the Obama administration; or her willingness to embrace the LOC’s mission to promote American cultural greatness.
But Hayden does talk about things she has done that have nothing to do with the mission of the Library of Congress. She speaks about how the Baltimore library responded to the riots and racial disturbances there:
During the recent unrest in Baltimore, it was very evident that people needed not only information, but a safe place and a trusted place to go and so … we decided to open the library right across from the epicenter of the unrest … we became a site for people to actually get food, to get supplies … and so it became that community meeting place, and people were so relieved to have a safe place to be.
This was an admirable act of community service by Dr. Hayden. But this is not the job description of the librarian of Congress. It is the job description of a community organizer. That might qualify Dr. Hayden to become the first director of the Obama Presidential Library, but not to become the head of America’s leading research and cultural institution.
In her commercial, Hayden does seem to allude — once — to research:
We talk about libraries as being the original treasure chest. You can involve yourself in knowledge from years and years ago.
Those are general and unremarkable arguments implying “libraries are good.” They are not compelling and sophisticated ones that qualify the speaker to be librarian of Congress.
President Obama made it clear that race and gender were at the core of this appointment. In her commercial, Hayden spoke of it too:
Being the first female, and the first African-American, really brings together two aspects of, of course, my life that make this even more significant I think in terms of how people view the future of libraries, and what a national library can be. It’s inclusive, it can be part of everyone’s story.
In other words, it’s all about identity.
The White House commercial on Carla Hayden’s behalf is striking for its lack of even a single mention of the Library of Congress’s most important mission: research and scholarship in the service of the public. Serious scholarship is in the Library of Congress’s very DNA: Thomas Jefferson’s foundational collection was the working collection of a scholar, and from its original roots the Library of Congress has become an enormous engine of research and scholarly discovery — too important to be left in the inexperienced hands of a research novice.
Carla Hayden’s lack of digital experience and expertise also reveals a dangerous shortcoming in her ability to lead the Library of Congress in the 21st century. The world’s two largest libraries by collection size are the Library of Congress and the British Library. Each has universal collections, and their shared mission in the new millennium is increasingly electronic and virtual; here are signal programs launched by the Library of Congress in just the past two decades: Thomas.gov, Congress.gov (each vital for legislative support), and the National Digital Library, which provides free access online to digitized American history and culture resources with curatorial explanations for digital K-12 education.
The British Library operates analogous programs, and when it chose its own new director three years ago, it wisely selected a professional with solid experience in running a large institution’s digital resources: Roly Keating, the BBC’s controller of digital channels and director of archive content. Keating is now leading the British Library in a successful series of innovative digital programs, garnering international acclaim, and establishing the British Library as the world’s leading digital cultural institution.
Ms. Hayden’s capabilities to undertake anything similar for the Library of Congress appear to be absent; her rudimentary online efforts up until now give the impression of a balky floppy disk in an age of global cloud services.
In today’s digital world, a vital test of management skill for any large information enterprise is securing its data and online services. Yet a security review of Ms. Hayden’s current institution reveals that the password for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s “epfl-wpa” wireless network is actually disclosed openly on the EPFL website.
This risks the security of not only the Library’s network and resources, but also the laptops and mobile devices of every library patron who logs in at the library.
A recent Washington Post article lauding Hayden’s nomination gushes that if confirmed by the Senate, “the next Librarian of Congress is likely to have tremendous say over our technological future.” That is so, claims the Post, because the Library controls the Copyright Office.
What exactly qualifies Dr. Hayden to chart America’s technological future, no one can say. The principal arguments that the Post cites in support of her nomination seem to boil down to vague talk and clichéd slogans about Hayden’s interest in “promoting public access to the Internet,” and her alleged expertise in “updating library systems for the digital age.” Indeed, according to President Obama, Hayden’s principal qualification for the job — in addition, of course, to her race and gender — is her interest in “modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture.”
If the Senate does its due diligence, it should seek outside experts from the IT world to examine whether Dr. Hayden is really a “technology expert” qualified to set national policy.
What is really going on with this nomination? The title of an admiring article in the leftist magazine The Nation says it all:
This Radical Librarian May Soon Run the World’s Largest Library
Maybe so. But Congress — not just the Senate, but the House of Representatives, too — just might have a thing or two to say about who runs the illustrious library that bears its name.