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Opinion Carla Hayden wants you to know that the Library of Congress is America’s other attic

Carla Hayden, 14th librarian of Congress, talks with The Post’s Jonathan Capehart on her office balcony before a taping of the “Cape Up” podcast on July 18. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)

“I’m from a race that had been forbidden to learn how to read.”

The pride in Carla Hayden’s voice takes on added significance when you know that she is the first African American to helm the Library of Congress. Not only that. Hayden is the first woman to lead the world’s largest library. “I’m a female in a female-dominated profession, where at least 85 percent to 90 percent of the workforce is female,” she said in the latest episode of “Cape Up.”


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“I call myself an accidental librarian,” Hayden said as she recounted her journey from local librarian to becoming the 14th librarian of Congress. “I didn’t know about the profession. I would actually go into a library, the central library, between job interviews after I graduated from undergrad. [O]ne of my fellow graduate colleagues said, ‘Hey are you [going] for those library jobs? They’re hiring anybody.’ ”

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Libraries are much different (read: fun) today than how they were in the Stone Age of my youth. “Libraries are more a place now and activity centers and opportunity centers than they might have been when you were in school,” Hayden said. The digital age has presented a challenge to libraries that Hayden doesn’t fear. When I told her that I could do all my research from my desk by using Google, she shot me the classic stern librarian look of my childhood. “I’m giving you a look,” Hayden said, “because a lot of the things that you are retrieving online have been put online by libraries like the Library of Congress.”

I first met Hayden at an event at the National Museum for African American History and Culture. The central point of her brief presentation was that the Library of Congress wasn’t just a library. We needed to think of it as an institution with collections just as impressive as those of any museum. If the Smithsonian is “America’s attic,” then the Library of Congress is the other one. “[At the library,] you have 164 million items,” Hayden revealed. “Collections that range from the largest gathering of comic books in the world to Jackie Robinson’s papers.”

An inside look at the Library of Congress

What’s in The Library of Congress? Opinion writer Jonathan Capehart speaks to Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and Reference Librarian Eric Frazier about the library’s collections. Coming soon, Capehart's podcast:

Posted by Washington Post Opinions, Outlook, and PostEverything on Monday, August 28, 2017

The highlight of the podcast interview came after our formal sit-down when Hayden took me to a conference room where several blow-your-mind artifacts were on display, and we captured it all on camera.

Watch the video and listen to the podcast to see and hear Hayden and senior reference librarian Eric Frazier walked me through some of the incredible collection on the table: books by Galileo Galilei (are those his fingerprints?!) and Nicolaus Copernicus, a Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson. Ever wonder what was in President Abraham Lincoln’s pockets when he was assassinated in 1865? Look no further than the Library of Congress to find out what those things were and how the library got them.

“The legend goes that the new librarian of Congress moved into the office, and there was a door that had a vault, it’s like a false door,” Hayden said of the discovery in 1975. “The legend continues that the gentleman who was, let’s say, incarcerated for being very expert at opening these types of things was given a small pardon to come and help open the vault, and he did. And inside there was just one item, and it was this one black box. And in the box, when they opened it, was a note saying that, through a gift from Abraham Lincoln’s granddaughter, these were the contents of his pocket the night he was assassinated.

“I have to tell you, as the 14th librarian of Congress, I looked through every nook and cranny of the new office that I got into,” Hayden said, laughing, clearly reveling in her dream job.

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever else you listen to podcasts.