President Obama's choice to head up the Library of Congress would be the first African American, and the first woman, to hold the job — if she's approved by the Senate. And that fact would likely bring a fresh perspective to a job that is increasingly important to the technology industry.
Obama on Wednesday nominated Carla Hayden, a former president of the American Library Association. Hayden currently runs the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. She was born in Florida and has roots in Chicago. There, as a librarian with the Chicago Public Library, she met the Obama family.
If confirmed as librarian of Congress, Hayden would have a position with very real power, as it's responsible for settling some of the weightiest policy questions in tech. The institution has handled questions such as whether it's legal for you to unlock your own cellphone so you can take your device to another carrier, or whether it's legal for security researchers or your local mechanic to access the software powering your car.
You see, every three years, the Library of Congress can bless certain technological practices by granting them exemptions from a law that would otherwise make them illegal. This is a function of America's copyright system, which is governed by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The Act forbids you from circumventing the copy-protection software that hardware manufacturers put in their devices. This has made certain activities technically illegal, except when the librarian of Congress periodically decides that they're not. Tinkering with cellphone and automotive software are just two examples of this.
As more of our everyday devices are coming with embedded software — think smart refrigerators or intelligent TVs, for example — that means that the next librarian of Congress will likely have a tremendous say over our technological future. This goes to show how important Hayden, if she's confirmed, could be.
Hayden's nomination drew plaudits from consumer groups Wednesday.
"Dr. Hayden has a strong record of promoting public access to the Internet and digital resources," the advocacy organization Public Knowledge said in a statement. "We expect that as the leader of one of the world's foremost cultural institutions and libraries, she will continue to promote the public's interest in access to knowledge."
Hayden is known for weighing in on policy issues. In 2003, she stood up to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft over the Patriot Act. Hayden pressed the Justice Department to reveal how often officials were using the law to force libraries to turn over data on their users. Although Ashcroft called the librarians' campaign a bunch of "baseless hysteria," he eventually agreed to make the information available.
Tech industry trade groups praised Hayden's experience.
"Her past work updating library systems for the digital age are exactly the skills needed to modernize the digital infrastructure at the Library of Congress," said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, which represents Google, Uber and Netflix. "We look forward to her leadership and partnership in shaping a digital future for the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress more broadly."
Obama's decision, which was announced on Facebook, follows his previous pattern of picking Americans with diverse backgrounds for high public office. For instance, he has selected more than 140 women and over a dozen gay or lesbian nominees to become federal judges. Obama published a post Wednesday to SCOTUSblog that outlined his principles for doing so:
[T]he third quality I seek in a judge is a keen understanding that justice is not about abstract legal theory, nor some footnote in a dusty casebook. It’s the kind of life experience earned outside the classroom and the courtroom; experience that suggests he or she views the law not only as an intellectual exercise, but also grasps the way it affects the daily reality of people’s lives in a big, complicated democracy, and in rapidly changing times.
You can find a list of all the previous librarians of Congress here.
By the way, the precedent Hayden would set on diversity — if she's confirmed — is important not just in historical terms, but also possibly in the context of a very current debate about diversity in technology.