No one would have blamed Dr. Carla Hayden, Baltimore’s chief librarian, for closing the library that night. It was April 2015 and the neighborhood was burning.
After Freddie Gray died in police custody and riots broke out, Dr. Hayden was pressured to close a nearby library temporarily. But the next morning, it opened faithfully, welcoming her neighbors who were tired, afraid, and looking for a place to find peace after a long night of chaos.
In those days, her libraries were more than a repository of books; they were a symbol. Of enduring strength, comfort, community, and maybe most importantly, hope.
It’s no wonder that just over a year later, she was sworn in as the first black person, first woman, and most experienced librarian to head The Library of Congress in its 216-year history. She’s also only the third Librarian to have actually trained in library science, a surprising fact for the largest library system in the world.
That day in Baltimore wasn’t the first time she’d stood up for the people. As head of the American Library Association in 2003, she was one of the most vocal opponents of provisions of the Patriot Act allowing the government to access library & bookstore records. She believed that it was fully possible to both “ensure national security and protect a person’s right to know.”
Her experience advocating for the public in Baltimore, against the Patriot Act and throughout her career, made her the perfect person to fill the role, which hadn’t been vacant since 1987. The world had changed in that time and needed a librarian who knew how to change with it.
Since her start last September, Dr. Hayden's Library has already digitized some of their most important documents, like Rosa Parks’ handwritten notes and maps from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, making them available to anyone, anywhere for the first time ever.
And the significance of a person like her in a role like this at time like now isn’t lost on her. She said, “To be the head of an institution that’s associated with knowledge and reading and scholarship when slaves were forbidden to learn how to read on punishment of losing limbs, that’s kind of something.”