“To be the head of an institution that’s associated with knowledge and reading and scholarship when slaves were forbidden to learn how to read on punishment of losing limbs, that’s kind of something.” [Carla Hayden]
In the United States 83% of librarians are women, but a woman has never served as Librarian of Congress—until now! Carla Hayden, sworn in on September 14, is the First Woman to head the Library of Congress. She is not only the first woman, but also the first African-American and, surprisingly, the first professional librarian to hold this position.
You might have heard her name before. She was Baltimore’s chief librarian during the 2015 riots in Baltimore and she chose to keep libraries open so that people would have a safe place to go. Young men from the community stood outside the library to secure its safety while buildings across the street went up in flames.
The particulars of her background and appointment seem to me to hold many similarities with the appointments of other women. Perhaps it was accidental, but it seems likely that women must meet different standards than men, even today.
- Carla Hayden has full credentials for the position. – Among the fourteen Librarians of Congress there have been politicians, businessmen, authors, poets and lawyers. Hayden, however, is credentialed in her field. Not only is she a librarian, but she was President of the American Library Association. I’m sure it didn’t hurt her application to Congress that Fortune magazine ranked her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders earlier this year.
- She had done the job before. – Research shows that men are often hired for their potential, but women are more likely to be hired if they have already held the same position elsewhere. Hayden ran a failing library system in Baltimore with 22 branches. She upgraded the technological capacity of the libraries and opened the first new library in Baltimore in 35 years.
- She knows how to clean up messes. – I have said for years that women make great managers because their domestic duties give them practice at multi-tasking. Women also have learned to straighten up other people’s messes. The Library of Congress is struggling, a lumbering beast being drug into the technological age. Hayden is determined to see that records are digitized and accessible to all.
- She knows the job from the bottom up. – It is not unusual for men to either start near the top or work their way up the ladder quickly. Too many of them don’t know how to perform the simpler tasks of their professions. Hayden began as a children’s librarian and this focus makes her committed to assuring that children and teachers can use the Library of Congress to teach the wonders of our nation’s history.
- The appointment of a woman gave the organization an excuse to change the rules. – Amazingly, in over two centuries there have been only fourteen Librarians of Congress because the position was held for life. The law has changed with Hayden’s appointment: she will serve for only ten years.
I will be so surprised if Hayden does not do a bang-up job. She has all the credentials; she’s done the job before; she can clean up messes; and she understands that the Library of Congress is not just for Congress and the powerbrokers. Her tenure should lead to a vital, community organization–provided the guys get out of her way.