Q&A: Hayden Leads America’s Library

Dana Isokawa

Nominated by President Obama this past February, Carla Hayden took office in September as the nation’s fourteenth Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman, and the first African American, to hold the position, which involves overseeing the library (a collection composed of more than 162 million books and other items) and its three thousand employees, as well as the nation’s law library, the office of the poet laureate, and the U.S. Copyright Office. Just a little over a month into her term, Dr. Hayden spoke about her plans for making the library more accessible, and a typical day in the life of the Librarian of Congress.

How are you hoping to make the library more accessible to the public?
We’re working on a digital strategy to make the collections available to everyone online. The collections range from comic books to the papers and memorabilia of Rosa Parks to the manuscript collections of twenty-three presidents. We just launched our new home page. It’s more active—you can really get a sense of what the collections are. We’ve also been tweeting every day, one or two things I find in the collections. The response has already been pretty wonderful because I’m tying it to what’s going on in the world. During the World Series we tweeted the baseball-card collections we have. On Halloween we posted the collection of Harry Houdini’s memorabilia—his personal scrapbooks and his funeral program—because he died on Halloween, in 1926. So we’re using social media and technology to touch as many people as possible in interesting ways.

How else do you envision people engaging with the library?
We’re really excited about the possibility of traveling exhibits that can go to local communities, including an eighteen-wheeler that can pull up in a rural area or on a reservation. We want people to be able to get on that truck and have an experience they might not have had if they can’t visit Washington, D.C. We’re hiring a new exhibit designer who has museum experience, and we’re hitting the road and drawing people in. And raising general awareness of the fact that it’s the nation’s library, it’s America’s library.

What do you see as the role of the poet laureate?
Our current laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, shows how to bring poetry into people’s lives in an active and everyday way. He’s demystifying it, and working with teachers, librarians, and people who work with young people to get them excited about poetry and to recognize it around them and in themselves. He wants poetry to be more spontaneous. As he has said, it shouldn’t be something you labor over—you should feel it and write it. He has this activity where he has the kids line up, like a soul-train line—the kids go down the line and write down words they’re hearing. They come out with a poem at the end.

What happens during a day in the life of the Librarian of Congress?
One month in, it is a period of discovery and getting to know not only the collections and the resources, but also the people who care for those collections. That’s been one of the greatest joys and discoveries—the curators are so knowledgeable at the library. So I go from budget meetings to visiting a collection to having the head of the British Library visit to participating in the National Book Festival and things like the poetry slam at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

What are you reading now?
Mysteries. I also just picked up The Gershwins and Me by Michael Feinstein; I got a chance to meet him, and got him to sign it, which was really cool. I have so many books stacked in my home—I have baskets of books waiting, just waiting. I try to think of them as pieces of candy, that they’re treats. If you walked into my apartment, you’d probably think, “This person likes to read,” and be able to find a few things to pick up.

Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.