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‘Rock star’ Baltimore librarian makes history at Library of Congress

Carla Hayden at an August ceremony in Baltimore honoring her service at the Pratt library. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The usually quiet atrium of the Enoch Pratt Free Library came alive with laughter and cheers last month as hundreds gathered to say goodbye to a Baltimore official known to many as "Doc."

It was an astonishing display of affection for the Pratt’s departing leader, Carla D. Hayden, who is being sworn in Wednesday as the new head of the Library of Congress. Many dismiss urban libraries as outdated and irrelevant, yet Baltimore residents and civic leaders were celebrating the Pratt and Hayden, who captained its resurgence.

“She’s like a rock star,” said Maureen O’Neill, a librarian at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a city high school. “To see a librarian exalted and appreciated is very touching.”

City residents and Pratt employees gathered alongside current and former trustees of the Pratt, city officials and members of Maryland’s congressional delegation to wish Hayden well. She seemed to know them all by name.

“As my grandmother said, ‘It’s mutual between us,’ ” Hayden said later. “It’s a city that really grabs you. They’re just good people.”

After 23 years as Pratt’s chief executive, Hayden, 64, will make history today as she becomes the first woman and the first African American to run the nation’s library. Founded in 1800, the library is the largest in the world, with 162 million items in its collection. It also provides research and legal advice for members of Congress and oversees the U.S. Copyright Office.

Hayden succeeds James H. Billington, a Reagan appointee who retired last year. She will be the first librarian to serve a set 10-year (but renewable) term, and she will earn $179,700, significantly less than her $224,908 salary in Baltimore last year.

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Hayden is leaving an institution of 22 branches and 500 employees that colleagues say she transformed into a model for modern and engaged public libraries.

“She kept everything good about [the library] but made it more innovative,” said best-selling author and library trustee Laura Lippman.

As they said goodbye, speaker after speaker teased Hayden about picking up the tiniest pieces of trash off the floor and weeding the flower gardens at the library’s entrance. They praised her for introducing technology and rejuvenating the staff. They celebrated her courage in keeping the library open during last year’s protests over the death of Freddie Gray, who was injured while in police custody.

And they thanked her for her passionate service by naming the central library’s annex — built during her tenure — in her honor.

Days after the Pratt send-off, in her spacious office in the Library of Congress’s Madison Building, Hayden displayed the down-to-earth qualities that were mentioned frequently at her farewell. She peppered the conversation with words such as “whippersnapper” and “okey-dokey,” elongating her syllables for emphasis and uncorking a surprisingly throaty laugh.

Divorced with no children, Hayden said she will commute to Washington from her home in Baltimore. She’s a lifelong reader but has declined at least one invitation to join a book club, because she has enough reading assignments and deadlines at work. She enjoys magazines and mysteries — Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series is a particular favorite, and not just because she appeared in one. She loves to garden but gave up her plot when she sold her Baltimore townhouse a few years ago to move closer to her mother, Colleen. She grows “geraniums and such” in pots on her balcony and was delighted to learn that she could grow plants in Washington.

“They told me today I could piddle out there a bit,” Hayden said, pointing to the terrace outside her office, with its view of the Capitol dome. “I really like that.”

Born in Florida, Hayden grew up in Illinois, the only daughter of musical parents. (Her younger brother died in 1992.) She didn’t share her parents’ musical talents but enjoyed reading and books from a young age. After graduating from Chicago’s Roosevelt University, Hayden began looking for a job in the city, stopping at the public library between interviews. It wasn’t long before she was hired as a children’s librarian. She also worked at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1987 earned a doctorate in library science from the University of Chicago. In 1991, Hayden returned to the Chicago Public Library as chief librarian, the No. 2 two position. In 1993, she came to Baltimore’s Pratt.

As Hayden moved up the ranks in Chicago, friends and co-workers said, she remained the grounded, gracious person she’d always been.

“No matter what position she held, she didn’t change her demeanor,” said Emily Guss, a retired Chicago librarian who met Hayden in the late 1980s. “She was always professional, but you could count on her to still be the Carla that you knew.”

Guss said Hayden put the work before herself. “I always saw her trying to find some way to improve the library. I didn’t see her manipulating to get higher. She does what she does and her work speaks for itself.”

It was in Chicago that Hayden became acquainted with the Obamas. Michelle Obama worked for the city and interacted with many agencies, including the library, and Hayden was introduced to Barack Obama after the couple got engaged. She attended his 2009 inauguration as a member of the public, not as an invited guest.

Obama's nomination of Hayden unleashed partisan criticism that described her as an "activist librarian" who challenged parts of the Patriot Act for infringing on library users' privacy. One headline called her "the former president of a pro-porn organization," a reference to her fight against mandatory computer filters intended to screen porn­ography but that also prevented access to health sites and other reasonable information. She was called a "quota hire."

“Because I’m black or a woman?” she asked, teasingly. “Which quota are they talking about?”

Hayden said she prefers to focus on the work ahead, which she sees as a continuation of her efforts in Baltimore. “The Pratt Library is now at the table in just about any discussion about the city’s challenges,” she said. “What could this library do for the country? It’s a beautiful building. Visitors love the building, but what are they doing in it?”

The Rosa Parks collection is digitized, she said, her speech quickening as she grows enthusiastic. The library also has the world’s largest comic-book collection, and its collections have been researched for movies. “People don’t realize a lot of the things they interact with, the Library of Congress has a part in,” she said.

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Hayden is aware of but undaunted by the library’s challenges, including outdated technology, a storage crisis for its rapidly growing collections and a demoralized staff. A 2015 government report found widespread mismanagement of its IT systems, which wasted millions of dollars and hampered operations at the Copyright Office and elsewhere. Hayden said the library’s chief information officer, Bernard Barton, had made great strides in his first year.

“He’s made a lot of progress . . . and there are regular meetings with the Government Accountability Office, so there’s close monitoring going on,” she said. “He reassured me technology will not be a problem, and I’m holding him to it.”

Restoring the morale of the library’s staff is another concern.

The 2016 survey of federal employees, which is not yet released but was obtained by The Washington Post, shows that only 49 percent of staff said they had a “high level of respect” for the library’s senior leaders and only 38 percent reported being satisfied with senior leadership’s practices. Thirty percent said “creativity and innovation are rewarded,” and just 22 percent said pay raises were linked to job performance. A library spokeswoman said the acting librarian, David Mao, initiated the survey during the leadership transition to create a baseline for planning. The last time the library conducted the survey, which will be released in the coming weeks, was in 2010.

Hayden also will focus on private fundraising, alongside the library’s fundraising arm, the James Madison Council. She has met with its chairman, David M. Rubenstein, and believes it will continue and grow. Rubenstein agrees.

“I’m very much looking forward to working with Carla Hayden,” he said. “She is a person who is used to raising private-sector money. I think she will bring her own flavor and her own style.

“The James Madison Council has done a reasonably good job, but we can always do more. Working with Carla Hayden we hope to add more people to the council, to provide more diversity in its membership, more youth. I expect we’ll grow the membership and expect we’ll raise additional money.”

Hayden plans to meet informally with staff — “maybe coffee with Carla,” she suggested — to hear their concerns and learn about the library’s history and operations. It is her responsibility, she said, to help others reach their potential.

“Everybody is really equal,” she said. “I’ve learned, and maybe it has to do with my culture, that there are people who may be maintenance workers by day and are deacons in the church on Sunday.”

That approach is signature Hayden, friends say.

“She believes in people. She’s a real nurturer and supporter,” said Mary Hastler, chief executive of the Harford County Public Library in Belcamp, Md., and past president of the Maryland Library Association. “She doesn’t give up easy. She really wants change, to make change.”