Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden recalled when she spoke to about 700 children last week and was asked about her job, what’s it like being historic and the importance of talking about black history.
“Well, I’m not that old,” Hayden, 64, said Saturday at the Camelot by Martin’s in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. “Sometimes when you’re talking to young people, you think you should downplay the hardships and troubles. I felt at this time it’s even more important to be truthful not only to expose them to the hard past, but what’s happening now and what they can do in the future.”
Hayden, the nation’s 14th librarian of Congress and the first black and first woman to hold the position, spoke to several hundred politicians and community leaders at the 36th annual 5th Congressional District Black History Month breakfast celebration. This year’s theme at the invitation-only event: “The Challenges in Black Education and Opportunities in America.”
Hayden is also one of three people chosen with a librarian background to oversee millions of books, photographs and other documents, which made her a top-notch choice at the Black History Month program previously attended by the late Marion Barry Jr. in 1987, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama, in 2010 and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch last year.
“We have had extraordinary speakers. Carla Hayden is in their ranks,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D), who represents Maryland’s 5th Congressional District. “Dr. Hayden is interested in making sure that all of us are empowered by the information, of which she is now the major steward, in the world.”
Before coming to the Library of Congress, Hayden served as the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, in the same neighborhood where looting and violence took place after the death of Freddie Gray. The library, which wasn’t damaged during the unrest, stayed open for residents amid the turmoil.
One of her goals at the 216-year-old library in Southeast is to digitize and preserve historical items. She also wants to incorporate modern technology into urban and rural communities.
Hayden told a story from a book written by Alberto Manguel with a chapter labeled “Forbidding Reading,” which stresses how those with power denied people the opportunity to read.
“[C]enturies of slave owners, dictators, tyrants and other elicited holders of power have known the ability of an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule,” she said. “If you cannot prevent a people from learning to read … the next best recourse is to limit its goal.”
The book, “A History of Learning,” also highlights how slave owners burned books to ensure blacks couldn’t read.
Hayden, who was appointed by former President Barack Obama last February and sworn in by Supreme Court Justice John Roberts in September, will oversee 162 million items such as sheet music from late jazz legend Charlie Mingus and speeches, fan mail and other documents of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball.
“I am blessed to open up a treasure chest for everyone,” she said.
Hayden’s mother, Colleen, who was in attendance, said she still can’t believe her daughter leads the world’s biggest library.
“It’s surreal,” she said while Hayden took pictures with dozens of people after the program. “Her name will be on the walls in the Library of Congress. This will go down in history.”