In this Feb. 25, 2004 file photo, Carla Hayden speaks in Seattle. President Barack Obama has nominated Hayden, the longtime head of Baltimore’s library system as the next Librarian of Congress. (Ted S. Warren, File/Associated Press)

President Obama’s historic choice to be the 14th librarian of Congress, Carla D. Hayden, is regarded as a smart, politically savvy leader and strong advocate for community engagement and access for all.

Hayden is the chief executive of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, a job she has had for 22 years. She drew praise and criticism for her decision to keep the library open during last year’s protests over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. As the head of the American Library Association in 2003-2004, Hayden took on U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft over measures in the Patriot Act that she considered an invasion of privacy. And she is credited with updating Pratt’s technology and launching programs to meet the community’s needs.

If confirmed by the Senate, Hayden, 63, will be the first woman and the first African American in the position. She would succeed James H. Billington, who retired last year after 28 years as head of the massive federal agency. Hayden declined to be interviewed, citing the confirmation process.

Hayden’s confirmation faces several challenges. The recent opening on the U.S. Supreme Court could delay her hearing, as Republicans may follow the logic that the next president deserves to make similar appointments. Last year, Congress passed a law making the librarian of Congress a 10-year appointment (with an option to renew), a change that may help to depoliticize the process. Hayden would be only the second librarian to head the federal agency. The two previous librarians were scholars and authors.

Reaction from Capitol Hill was muted yesterday. In a joint statement, Reps. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), chairman of the Committee on House Administration, and Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), vice chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, said: “The next Librarian must be committed to building upon the institution’s tradition of the advancement of knowledge throughout the world. We look forward to hearing more from Dr. Carla D. Hayden as she makes her way through the Senate confirmation process.”

Carla Hayden has been the chief executive of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore since Since 1993. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Colleagues describe Hayden as tough, straightforward and dynamic.

“She is loved by the people of Baltimore for building new buildings, renovating old ones, making them the center of life in Baltimore,” said Winston Tabb, the dean of university libraries and museums at Johns Hopkins University.

Tabb said her decision to keep the library open last year during the sometimes violent protests over Gray’s death was critical because it provided citizens with “a place of refuge.”

“She’s also just a nice person. She’s very funny. She’s not full of herself in any way,” he said.

Hayden earned a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Chicago. She began her career as a children’s librarian in the Chicago public library system, and in 1991, she was named its deputy commissioner and chief librarian. She held that job for two years before moving to Baltimore.

“Michelle and I have known Dr. Carla Hayden for a long time, since her days working at the Chicago Public Library, and I am proud to nominate her to lead our nation’s oldest federal institution as our 14th Librarian of Congress,” Obama said in a statement. “Dr. Hayden has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today’s digital culture.”

Hayden has served on the National Museum and Library Services Board since 2010 (a position that required Senate confirmation).

American Library Association President Sari Feldman described Hayden as “a talent to be reckoned with.”

“She has been known so much for the way she has looked outward, the way she has recognized the needs of our community and the integration of the changing library and technology environment,” Feldman said. “The way the Pratt Library handled itself under pressure during the Baltimore riots . . . the library recognized it was a place of information, it was a place of safety, and a place where the community could come together to discuss the issues of the city and the issues of the time.”

Enoch Pratt has 22 locations, 500 employees and an annual budget of $40 million. Although Enoch Pratt is one of the oldest libraries in the nation, it is not among the largest. It is not included on the American Library Association’s list of top 25 public libraries in the United States when measured by population served, size of collection, circulation or frequency of visits.

Hayden is credited with updating the library’s technology and improving its community outreach. She led the effort to open the first new branch in 35 years as well as a $112 million renovation of the central library that’s underway. She has instituted numerous programs, including college and career counseling and the digitization of the library’s special collections.

In a statement issued by Enoch Pratt, Hayden said the nomination is a great honor.

“It is my privilege to serve the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the citizens of Baltimore for more than 20 years, during which time we restored its world-renowned reputation,” she said.

Billington, a scholar and author, was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1987. He retired in the fall after a blistering government report blamed him for years of technological failures that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress has a $630 million annual budget and 3,200 employees. It serves as the research arm of Congress, provides Congress with legal advice and runs the Copyright Office, a major player in the world’s digital economy.

Tabb said Hayden’s experience and training as a librarian is key.

“There is so much that needs to be done in the development of the digital library,” he said. “There’s a need for leadership that has the instinct for where the concerns are, and how to make the Library of Congress not just the congressional library, but truly a national library.”

Philip Kennicott and Mark Guarino contributed to this report.