Librarian of Congress Hayden to focus on role of libraries in civic infrastructure


Alton Northup
Staff writer

Libraries offer more than just books.

“They are a part of the cultural, the civic and even the physical underpinnings of just about every community,” said Carla Hayden, the 14th librarian of Congress.

Hayden concludes the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Five theme, “Infrastructure: Building and Maintaining the Physical, Social and Civic Underpinnings of Society,” at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, where she will discuss the ways libraries have become more ingrained in the infrastructure of communities and the challenges they face.

Hayden calls herself an “accidental librarian.” 

Growing up, she said she loved libraries because they gave her access to the things she cared about, but knew little about.

“I found out about the profession of librarianship and that’s when I said, ‘Oh wow, something I love and you can actually work in it and be part of how they develop,’ ” she said.

Libraries have indeed developed in recent years.

Reckoning with a new digital age, libraries are quickly becoming an all-encompassing resource for communities. 

Many now offer tools, sewing machines, business clothes for interviews and – after the pandemic forced them to temporarily close – internet hotspots.

Another popular addition to libraries are makerspaces. In 2018, The Johns Hopkins University reported 31% of public colleges and universities in the United States had or planned for a makerspace in its library. These makerspaces have also transformed into incubators for local businesses.

This change is no sweat for librarians such as Hayden.

“We have T-shirts, bags and cups that say, ‘Librarians are the original search engine,’ ” she said. “It’s really just expanded what librarians provide in terms of information and inspiration.”

It also would not be the first time libraries have adjusted to change. The 1960s ushered in the era of libraries as community information centers, when people could visit for information on local services such as rental assistance. Librarians, Hayden said, are always “trying to help people live their best lives.”

As the first professional librarian to hold her position since 1974, she said her background is an advantage for the Library of Congress during this time of rapid digital change. The institution is the largest library in the world and also one of the largest collections of comic books, photographs, film, musical instruments and presidential papers.

Her goal since taking office in 2016 has been to connect these resources to local libraries. The institution regularly holds programs in conjunction with local libraries where audiences in one location can interact with live presenters in Washington, D.C. 

“We’re really making sure that we are connecting directly with local libraries,” she said. “We’re working with state libraries, and their connections; we also have a network of services for the National Library for the Blind and Print Disabled.”

This will not be Hayden’s first visit to Chautauqua; eight years ago, when she was CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library System and the former president of the American Library Association, she gave the closing lecture of the Chautauqua Women’s Club Contemporary Issues Forum series.

“I was there in 2015, right before I started on the journey to become Librarian, so it will be full circle for me,” she said.


The author Alton Northup