Q&A with Women Cultural Leaders: Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden


Our spring arts preview featured 19 women cultural leaders in Washington, D.C. We wanted to spend the next 19 newsletters featuring each of these women, giving them their own time in the spotlight. Our Thursday March 10 newsletter features Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.

THE GEORGETOWNER: D.C. should have a “spring awakening” of sorts after two long years of Covid. What are you most looking forward to for your institution this season?

CARLA HAYDEN: It’s been such a joy to welcome visitors and users back into the Library’s magnificent buildings. I like to think that our “spring awakening” really started to bloom during the pandemic, when we redoubled our efforts to open our “digital front door” with online collections and virtual events that welcomed even more Americans to discover the wonders in our collections. We hope that our ongoing commitment to new audiences virtually will encourage even more Americans to visit us in person at the Thomas Jefferson Building. I never grow tired of seeing people gazing at the ceiling of the Great Hall and Main Reading Room! Even more than that, I’m excited to invite every American to discover some of our greatest treasures here in the world’s largest library and our nation’s oldest cultural institution. 

GEORGETOWNER: What led you to become a leader in your organization? Tell us a bit about your career trajectory and inspirations along the way.

CH: I confess I am an “accidental librarian.” After college graduation, I was always at the Chicago Public Library in between job interviews. One day, someone asked me if I was there for the library job because, “they are hiring everyone.” So of course I applied and was assigned to a storefront library branch where a staffer offered story times for children with autism. She was enrolled in graduate school for library sciences, and I discovered the extraordinary opportunities that the profession had to offer. 

GEORGETOWNER: What are the biggest challenges for your organization?

CH: Like many libraries and cultural institutions across the country, our biggest challenge is adapting to the “new normal” of pandemic and post-pandemic operations. We’ve learned a great deal about work, customer service, and the value of knowledge during the last two years, and what lies ahead for the Library, our city, our nation and our world will look different from the world we knew before the pandemic. Our challenge is to learn from what we accomplished during the pandemic, engaging new audiences virtually and much of our staff working remotely, and blend that with the traditional in-person services and experiences we provide to Congress and the American people. 

GEORGETOWNER: How do you feel being among the first women (particularly the first African American woman to hold the post and the first woman to serve since 1802 and the first professional librarian appointed since 1974) to lead an arts institution?

CH:As the first woman, and the first African-American, in this post, I’m truly grateful and humbled by the opportunity to serve our country in this role. It’s especially meaningful because African-Americans were once punished with lashes – and worse – for learning to read. As a descendent of people who were denied the right to read, the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is our nation’s great symbol of knowledge, is a historic experience I never take for granted. In 1845, Frederick Douglass said, “Once you learn to read you will be forever free.” And now, 177 years later, everyone has the opportunity to be empowered by literacy. 

GEORGETOWNER: What are you most proud of accomplishing while serving in your position?

CH: The remarkable staff of the Library and many of my predecessors set the stage for us, but I’m excited to connect all Americans to the Library of Congress. No matter where you live, across this great nation, the Nation’s Library is your library, and books are just the beginning of what we have to share with you! 

This Just In: The Gershwin Prize to Lionel Richie

One of the perks of being the Librarian of Congress is the opportunity to honor a major talent with the national prize for popular song, which made its debut in 2007.

This year, Lionel Richie was awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song during an all-star tribute concert March 9. Richie also appeared at the library March 7 in a conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. (The event is available on the library’s YouTube channel.) The salute to Richie will be broadcast on PBS May 17.

The songwriting superstar is known for hits such as “Endless Love,” “Lady,” “Truly,” “All Night Long,” “Penny Lover,” “Stuck on You,” “Hello,” “Say You, Say Me” and “Dancing on the Ceiling.” Richie also co-wrote the global song, “We Are the World.” 

Lionel Richie is awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song March 9 at DAR Constitution Hall, as Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) look on. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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