Under Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden, the world’s largest library is on its way to becoming another one of Washington’s acclaimed museums.
A splashy exhibition on baseball opened there just as Washington was hosting Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game, and last May, the library added a major collection of comic books, including early images of Mickey Mouse, to its permanent holdings, which number 170 million.
Two and a half years into her 10-year term, Hayden is making good on her promise to throw open the doors of America’s “palace of knowledge” and invite ordinary citizens to join scholars in exploring its treasures. The former head of Baltimore’s public library system and an Obama nominee, Hayden is focused on making the Library of Congress a cultural destination — a museum of American letters that will inspire, educate and, yes, even entertain.
“People don’t know that the Library of Congress has something for them,” said Hayden, who became the 14th librarian of Congress in 2016. “We built a palace to knowledge and we wanted it to rival any palace in any European city. [But] you have to let people come in and . . . be inspired. That’s what it was designed for.”
Central to Hayden’s goals is a $60 million makeover of the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, the historic 1897 architectural wonder known for its Great Hall, which is open to the public, and the Main Reading Room, the hushed temple where scholars work. Hayden unveiled the first glimpses of the concept — with its additional exhibition space, youth center and innovative access to the Main Reading Room — on Wednesday at her annual appearance before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees the library.
Some critics have expressed concerns that if the plan is approved, the library’s intellectual focus will be sacrificed to an avalanche of exhibitions and the increased foot traffic that would result. In an age when facts seem to be up for grabs and information flows quickly but often with little authority, they say, the library’s academic mission is more critical than ever.
But Hayden and her team — which includes two senior executives with museum backgrounds — say the changes would spark renewed interest in the library’s history, its collections and its role as a research institution.
“Whatever you want to call yourself, you’re trying to tell stories, share the collection, help them to understand the place,” said David Mandel, the library’s director of the Center for Exhibits and Interpretation. “The library has a long history of doing exhibitions. This is trying to do it in a more modern way.”
The changes to the Jefferson Building are intended to attract more visitors, a Hayden priority. The library had 1.9 million visitors in 2017, up from 1.6 in 2013.
“It isn’t an ivory tower only for select people. It’s the people’s library,” said historian and author A. Scott Berg, who is doing research at the library for his next book. “They are sitting on hundreds of thousands of amazing objects. It’s part of [Hayden’s] desire and mission to share that with the American public.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, Hayden showed the committee renderings of the concept, created by New York design firm Pure + Applied, that would adapt the historic building to modern visitor needs. The redesign would improve traffic flow by consolidating the entrances to one main ground-floor entry and add a Treasures Gallery to display the gems of the library’s expansive and varied collection.
It also would move Thomas Jefferson’s Library — a circular display of examples of the books Jefferson sold to Congress to start the collection — from the second floor to a ground-floor space that is not open to the public now. The exhibit would have a circular window, 20 feet in diameter, in its ceiling, a feature Hayden called an oculus.
“You will have a welcoming orientation space where constituents and visitors will see Jefferson’s Library as the foundation of the library and look up through an oculus to the magnificent Main Reading Room,” Hayden told the committee.
A second view of the Main Reading Room would be created by installing a glass wall to replace an unused entrance to the room on the main level. Both the oculus and the main floor window would allow visitors to enjoy a view of the spectacular room — including Edwin Blashfield’s murals and the statues representing such academic subjects as history, philosophy and art — without disrupting those working inside.
Hayden said she wants casual visitors to be inspired by the reading room’s grandeur, but there’s a delicate balance between providing access and encroaching on researchers. (The room is opened to the public twice a year, and to those 16 and older who have a reader registration card, which is free and available in person.)
“You don’t want it to become like a zoo — ‘Oh, those are the scholars over there looking at books,’ ” said Berg, the historian. “It’s hard for me to imagine that’s going to happen. [Hayden] respects the researchers above all.”
Representatives of the AFSCME union, Local 2910, which represents 1,350 library employees, have raised concerns about expanding access.
“All of us are interested in having people in the library,” said Local 2910 president Anne Toohey. “We don’t want to see it turned into an events center just because it’s beautiful.”
The proposal calls for a youth center on the Jefferson Building’s ground level, with interactive exhibitions as well as creative spaces for young people to learn about the library and the work of librarians. It would also add such visitor amenities as a cafe and expanded gift shop.
Congress appropriated $10 million for the project last year, including an immediate $2 million for a master plan. The final proposal will be submitted to Congress in June, Hayden said, and if it is approved, the $8 million balance will be released. Congress has agreed to fund an additional $30 million, to be matched by $20 million in private donations. Hayden said the library has received $11 million in verbal commitments.
As part of the planning process, library officials held a workshop for staff members in January featuring executives from “peer institutions,” including the Kennedy Center, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who shared their efforts to engage new audiences and deepen community engagement.
The fact that the library sees museums and arts centers as peers raised concerns of those who are alarmed by the shift from scholarship to storytelling.
“These changes have been poorly thought through and will chase after a shallow, short-term goal . . . at the expense of something precious — research, and writing and the Jeffersonian goal of a great library serving the American people with the treasure inside its books,” said a former senior library employee who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
“The second you start ignoring the collection, and dangling baubles in front of people to get huge numbers to come in the door, that’s when a host of problems will begin.”
Historian and author Jay Winik pointed to other historic buildings that balance their original mission with access to tour groups and other visitors.
“It’s a cross between a library and a museum, the same way the Capitol building is a cross between a working legislature and a museum,” Winik said. “Or the White House, where the most influential person in the world works. Tours have certain boundaries in the Capitol, and that’s clearly going to be the case at the library.
“It wouldn’t work to turn it into a train stop or a bus terminal. There will have to be a balance,” he added. “It should be for the people but maintain its identity as a workplace.”
Winik praised Hayden’s efforts to engage with the public and show them American history and culture up close.
“There’s something irreplaceable about touching original letters, seeing original photographs,” he said. “It gives me the chills.”
Hayden said that’s the excitement she wants all visitors to experience.
“We want to inspire other people to become [historians], to encourage young people to be curious and be history detectives,” she said. “There’s concern about who is going to want to look through old papers and diaries? We’re trying to build the next generation.”