On July 12, 2016, the United States Senate confirmed Carla Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, as the 14th Librarian of Congress. It was a good day for the country, for librarians and for those who remain committed to rationality in the universe.
The confirmation by the Senate was no simple matter. President Barack Obama nominated Ms. Hayden for the position in February of this year. The Senate held a Hearing on the nomination in April. Ms. Hayden, a woman festooned with accomplishment, sailed through the process. But the enthusiasm of the Senate Rules Committee did not transfer to the Senate as a whole. Since the leadership of the U.S. Senate has pledged to block everything that the President proposes, the fact that he had nominated Ms. Hayden posed a problem. Dozens of judicial appointments, ambassadorships and executive appointments that require Senate approval languish in legislative limbo.
In June I began to see viral discussions of the delay. Word was that a scholar at the Heritage Institute, a very politically conservative think tank supported by the infamous Koch brothers , had caused some of the delay on this particular appointment. He had raised an argument that we have heard in the past. The position of Librarian of Congress is too important to be held by a librarian. It calls for a scholar, someone of intellectual heft. In his own words:
“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,” Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation wrote this year.”
Mr. von Spakovsky felt the need to genuflect to the fact that Ms. Haynes is an African-American woman and to point out that neither her gender nor her race was the problem. The problem he chose to raise was that she was a librarian not a scholar.
Taking Mr. von Spakovsky at face value, something I do not actually do, but for the purposes of this essay will attempt, his point is a rehash of the arguments made at the time of the appointment of the last Librarian of Congress in 1987. Back then there was a small kerfuffle over whether the position of Librarian of Congress hould go to a qualified librarian. As the Acting Dean of the School of Library and Information Studies at Berkeley at that time, my voice was one of many who called for a librarian to lead what amounts to the national library of the United States. After all, the library world was starting to change, systems were automating and though we could never have guessed then about the profound changes awaiting us in the digital age, we knew a knowlegdable hand was needed at the helm. The New York Times broke my heart when it ran an editorial explaining that the job was too big for a librarian. A scholar was needed.
And so Dr. James Billington, an eminent scholar, was appointed in 1987. He remained in the office until last November when, at the age of 86, he retired after 28 years. Many fine things happened at the Library of Congress in those years, but the problems that developed overwhelm them. The Library did not take a leadership role in the changes cascading in libraries, it did not keep up its own systems or develop its staff’s potential. In a lengthy piece in the June 15, 2015 New York Times, titled “Librarian of Congress Resigns Under Fire,” Michael Shear detailed the problems. Since the New York Times broke my heart in 1987, it warms a vengeful spirit to read the following:
“The move comes after Dr. Billington, who turned 86 on June 1, presided over a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies.”
So now, with the Library in deep trouble, it is time to let an actual librarian take control. Ms. Haynes has a distinguished record and a history of achievement and, well, she knows her beans. This time the Senate is making the job a ten year appointment, not a lifetime one. Another gift from Dr. Billiington, I suppose. This is too caustic, I recognize it, but I was livid in 1987, and I want to glory in 2016.
The United States has a visionary librarian at the head of the Library of Congress. I waited a long time to write that sentence.