The CVS across the street from one of Baltimore’s library branches was on fire, as the city was consumed in riots after Freddie Gray’s death last year.
So Carla D. Hayden, director of the city’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, packed a few days’ worth of clothes and headed down to the branch.
“It wasn’t that it was expected of her,” recalled Julie Todaro, president elect of the American Library Association. “It was ‘Well of course I’m going to go down there.’”
Hayden, 63, is now the president’s nominee to head the Library of Congress, the largest in the world with more than 162 million items in its collections. Every day, it adds about 12,000 items, such as books, recordings and transcripts.
She would become the first woman and first African-American to hold the position as the 14th librarian of the 216-year-old institution. She would also be the first to serve a 10-year term limit.
At a Senate Rules and Administration hearing held Wednesday, senators greeted her nomination favorably, and Chairman Roy Blunt, R-Mo., predicted the nomination would not stall.
Joined by her mother, Colleen, fellow librarians and other colleagues, Hayden spoke for the first time publicly about her nomination. She declined to be interviewed until the process is complete.
Hayden’s love of reading began at a young age, when her mother helped her check out a book from a storefront in Queens.
As a child, she spent summers in Springfield, Ill., where she would accompany her grandfather, a retired postal worker, to the state Capitol and state library where a fellow churchgoer kept a collection of books by American authors.
But her interest in working in the library field didn’t begin until she met a woman in Chicago who was helping special needs children.
“She was on the floor during story time for children with autism demonstrating the power” of the written word, Hayden recalled.
At Wednesday’s hearing, members questioned her stance on a variety of issues plaguing the library’s functions, namely how to make its voluminous materials available digitally and whether the copyright division ought to be spun out of the agency.
She said one of her top priorities is helping to make the library more modern and accessible.
One of the priorities Hayden highlighted was making the library accessible to everyone, particularly those in rural parts of the country. She also touted traveling exhibits as a way for the library’s collection to reach those far from Washington.
Before the hearing. several senators indicated they had spoken to and met Hayden to talk about her priorities and experience since President Barack Obama announced her nomination in February.
Hayden would fill a vacancy left by former Librarian James H. Billington, who retired in January after a 29-year tenure in which he came under fire for a host of technology failures.
She has worked at the Enoch library since 1993. Obama said in the statement he and first lady Michelle Obama knew Hayden from her time at the Chicago Public Library, where she worked from 1973-1981 and again from 1991-1993.
Hayden had the early backing of the Maryland’s Democratic senators, Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski, who recommended her to the president for the position and attended the confirmation hearing.
Cardin told Roll Call he recently discussed the library with Hayden, who was learning about its vast collections and jurisdictions.
“You could see that her mind was racing as to how she could help develop new avenues for, particularly for ordinary Americans to be able take advantage of the library,” Cardin said. “She’s going to be an advocate for ordinary Americans.”
But lawmakers also questioned Hayden’s tenure as the head of the ALA, from 2003-2004, a tumultuous time when she battled the George W. Bush administration over the Patriot Act, pushing back against provisions relating to government access to library records.
Todaro, who has known Hayden for 20 years, said the Baltimore librarian spoke up on the issues.
“That was a particularly difficult time for libraries,” Todaro said. “She was very strong in talking about our roles and responsibilities in federal legislation but that we had additional roles for our constituents.”