Carla Hayden: Harnessing the Power of Technology with the Resources at the Library of Congress

This is an excerpt from the inaugural speech by Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.

Photo of Carla Hayden

The 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Today, through the power of technology, thousands around the country are able to watch this ceremony live. This is the opportunity to build on the contributions of the Librarians who have come before, to realize a vision of a national library that reaches outside the limits of Washington.

When I contemplate the potential of harnessing that power of technology with the unparalleled resources at the Library of Congress, I am overwhelmed with the possibilities…This Library holds some of the world’s largest collections from maps to comic books; founding documents like Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence; the full papers of 23 presidents, and the works of eminent Americans such as Samuel Morse, Frederick Douglass, Clara Barton, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Hope and Thurgood Marshall.

What is the possibility for those treasures? How are they relevant today? I am reminded of a moment during the unrest in the City of Baltimore in April 2015. The Pennsylvania Avenue Branch library was located in the center of those events. But I made the decision to keep the library open, to provide a safe place for our citizens to gather. I was there, hand in hand with the staff, as we opened the doors every morning. Cars were still smoldering in the streets. Closed signs were hanging in storefronts for blocks. But people lined up outside the doors of the library. I remember in particular a young girl coming up to me and asking, “What’s the matter? What is everyone so upset about?” She came to the library for sanctuary and understanding.

Photo of Carla Hayden reading to children.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden reads to children from Brent Elementary school in the Young Readers Center, September 16, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

I recently had the opportunity to view one of the latest Library of Congress acquisitions – the Rosa Parks Collection – which includes her family bible, the bible she carried in her purse, and her handwritten letters. In one such letter she reflects on her December 1, 1955 arrest, writing, “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore.” That letter – and all of her papers – are now digitized and available online.

So anyone anywhere can read her words in her own handwriting. Read them in the classrooms of Racine, Wisconsin, in a small library on a reservation in New Mexico, and even in the library of a young girl in Baltimore, looking around as her city is in turmoil. That is a real public service. And a natural next step for this nation’s library, a place where you can touch history and imagine your future. This Library of Congress, a historic reference source for Congress, an established place for scholars, can also be a place where we grow scholars, where we inspire young authors, where we connect with those individuals outside the limits of Washington and help them make history themselves.

How do we accomplish this? By building on a legacy that depends so much on the people in this room. Not only the elected officials, who have quite a bit to say about the direction of this institution, but also the staff of the Library of Congress, my new colleagues, here on the mezzanine, watching in the Madison Hall, the Adams Café and the Montpelier Room; watching in Culpeper at the Packard Campus for audio/visual conservation; and watching at the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Public service has been such a motivating factor for me, in my life and my career. When I received the call from the White House about this opportunity, and was asked, “Will you serve?” Without hesitation I said “yes.” Throughout my career I have known the staff of the Library of Congress to be a dedicated and enthusiastic group of public servants. I look forward to working with you for years to come. But we cannot do it alone. I am calling on you, both who are here in person and those watching virtually, that to have a truly national library, an institution of opportunity for all: it is the responsibility of all.

That means collaborating with other institutions. That means private sector support and patriotic philanthropy for necessary projects like digitization. That means starting a new dialogue about connectivity to classrooms and other libraries. I cannot wait to work with all of you to seize this moment in our history. Let’s make history at the Library of Congress together.