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Carla Hayden: Palace to Knowledge

Dr. Carla Hayden is the Librarian of Congress; the library - a Palace to Knowledge - dates to 1800. It is a vital cultural institution, with 171 million items.

About this episode:

Dr. Carla Hayden is the 14th Librarian of Congress, and the first woman and the first African-American ever to hold that prestigious pose. Born in Tallahassee, Florida, Carla grew up in Queens and in Chicago. Her parents were both talented musicians – her father taught music at Florida A&M University – but Carla, by her own admission, did not have the music gene. What she did have was a love of knowledge and of reading.

After graduating from Roosevelt University in Chicago, and while looking for work, she became an “Accidental Librarian.” A college friend gave her a lead on a job in a public library. That tip led to a career in librarianship, including a doctorate in library science from the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago, a teaching post at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Science, and leadership roles in the public library systems in both Chicago and Baltimore.

In Baltimore, as Executive Director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Carla led that city’s magnificent public library system for almost a quarter of a century and was widely praised – and properly so – for keeping the libraries open in the wake of riots that shook Baltimore in 2015, following the death of Freddie Gray - an African-American - man in police custody.

In 2016, President Barack Obama nominated Carla to serve as the 14th Librarian of Congress. Upon her confirmation by the Senate, she took over that prestigious post.

The Library of Congress is a crown jewel. It dates to 1800, and one of its first large acquisitions of books came from the personal library of Thomas Jefferson. Though the Library of Congress was originally housed in the U.S. Capitol Building itself, fires in 1814 and 1851 – the first set by the British, the second, an accident – and a burgeoning collection required that the library move to its own building.

Today, its astonishing collection is housed in numerous buildings, including the Jefferson Building, which contains the breathtaking Main Reading Room, completed in 1897. The Library of Congress today has more than 171 million items, including 32 million catalogued books in 470 languages, 61 million manuscripts, 15 million photographs, 5 million maps, the papers of 23 presidents, and extraordinarily rare and precious books, including an original Gutenberg Bible and the Lincoln Bible.

In fact, when Carla Hayden took the oath of office for the post she now holds, she took it on the original Lincoln Bible. She shares with podcast host Chuck Rosenberg a wonderful story about that day, that Bible, her mom, and the oath.

In 2021, Carla is also leading a new Library-wide initiative, Of the People: Widening the Path, to connect the national library more deeply with Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and other underrepresented communities. To do this, the Library of Congress plans to expand its collections, use technology to enable storytelling, and offer more internship and fellowship opportunities to attract diverse librarians and archivists. The initiative, supported by a $15 million investment from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will allow the Library of Congress to share a more inclusive story about our contemporary American culture, our historical record and how we understand our past.

The Library of Congress is a Palace to Knowledge. It is one of the most important cultural institutions in the United States, and in the world. The person privileged to run it is Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

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