The first African-American and first woman to hold the position of librarian of Congress says she is partly in her role thanks to the inspiration of Frederick Douglass. Carla Hayden, who was sworn in last year, discusses with Roll Call the significance of Black History Month, her own place in it and how African-American culture and history is integral to American culture and history.
Hayden’s interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Roll Call: Some of the early figures in American history, people like Frederick Douglass, or Hiram Revels — the first African-American member of Congress — who are some of these figures who speak to you most, as somebody who has this front seat to history?
Carla Hayden: Well, I have to admit that Frederick Douglass might have a lot to do with the fact that I am a librarian. Frederick Douglass and his emphasis on literacy and reading, and the ability to read being linked to freedom. In fact, I have one of the quotes that I use all the time and we sell it in the library shop: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Frederick Douglass said that when he was writing his autobiography, he knew literacy and learning to read must have been important [because] the person who owned him didn’t want him to learn to read. And right then, he knew there was something about reading that was tied to the ability to either free yourself or have an amount of freedom.
RC: You have your own space in African-American history and U.S. history as the very first African-American who’s the librarian of Congress.
CH: Very daunting to know that you are a historical figure, in that sense.
RC: You have come into your office at this very pivotal time in American history, right when the first black president is leaving office. Talk a little about that.
CH: It’s been very daunting, I mentioned, to think of your[self] as an individual … that might be cited in the trail of history as being a first or something like that. And on the other hand, it was inspiring for me to work with young people. The Library of Congress just opened the Young Readers Center for Saturdays. And to see the young people there and you think, “They can make their own history.” So being able to talk with young people about historical figures, and you never know, right in this room, somebody turns to the person next to you that could be the next ... you could be the next president. That’s what makes you, I think, as a person who is involved in history, more inspired yourself.
RC: We’re at a time in American history when there is a lot of tension in the body politic. What would you say to someone who questions whether we need a Black History Month? Who asks, “Why don’t we just have an American history month?” What would you tell them as a librarian, as a keeper of historical knowledge for the country?
CH: That also comes up with Women’s History Month, which is going to be in March, and other aspects of just putting a spotlight for a concentrated period of time on a particular group. And, what it does is give people an opportunity to concentrate or find out about a particular group or segment in our history. It’s a wonderful vehicle. I know that there are displays in just about every school and every library in the country that are bringing things to the attention of students, and also their parents. There are some parents in different age groups who might not have had the history presented to them. It’s useful. And I think it could also be a way to have young people — I keep going back to young people because they really are the future and the hope — to get them to think about making history themselves.
RC: One of the things that is very striking about the Library of Congress is you have custody of so many aspects of American history — art, literature — and really it seems that there is an intertwining of African-American history with American history that makes it incredibly poignant, just from looking at some of the books or the photographs or the paintings that we see just as we walk into any one of the buildings.
CH: African-American history is American history. And, the fact that African-Americans were basically brought to this country to help build the country is reflected in so many of the documents, even photographs, everything that the library has collected over time really shows that integration in the true sense of the word — of African-American history and general American history.