Remember those stories about how the libraries in Baltimore were kept open during the 2015 riots? So kids who couldn't go to school had a safe place to go during the day? So people who were in desperate need for a sanctuary from the violence in the street, or who simply needed a break before returning to their posts defending their rights, could have a bit of quiet? That was because the Baltimore Library system knew the important role they play in their community.
The woman who made that decision, Dr. Carla Hayden, has been recognized for her dedicated service to the public, and promoted to what can effectively be called "the head librarian of the US." In a touching ceremony on Wednesday, September 14, she was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress, the first woman and the first person of color to hold that position.
She was introduced by Senator Barbara Mikulski, who was clearly very proud. In her speech, she remarked on the role of libraries as "public institutions, made available to the public, for their use to empower themselves." Public service and public empowerment seem to be the theme of Dr. Hayden's career, as evidenced most clearly by her response to the riots.
But that was not her first act of public service as a librarian. In her more than 20 years as the head of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system of Baltimore, she has worked diligently to support the larger community. Her work to get a library card registered to every 9th grade student in Baltimore was just another example of her drive to extend the read of the library into the community.
Library cards are the key to learning. It's been called "the smartest school supply a child needs." You know what a library card can basically provide: books, DVDs, music , research materials, periodicals, etc. But in this ever changing digital age, the library card has opened up a new world for children and teens. The "smart card" allows students to access ebooks, electronic databases, podcasts and special collections from anywhere.As one would expect from a dedicated librarian, Dr. Hayden opened her speech by sharing the story of her earliest library experiences. She told of herself as a little 8 year old girl with pigtails checking out the children's book Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli over and over again, "until the fines started to roll in."
As touching as that story is, the real emotion came when she addressed the significance of her swearing in head on, and the history she made simply by taking that oath of office.
"But also, and most poignantly, people of my race were once punished with lashes and worse for learning to read. And as the descendant of people denied the right to read to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is the national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment."When the camera cuts to the crowds on the mezzanine and I see the women, and especially the women of color, watching history being made, my heart fills my chest and I get a little teary. Then she thanks her mother, and the tears multiply.
She then goes on the make it exceedingly clear she intends to continue her lifelong pursuit to find new and meaningful ways to expand the role of public libraries in the lives of every citizen. Libraries are "a place where you can touch history and imagine your future." They are the keys to knowledge, and knowledge is the vehicle for an effective democracy. She quoted the 6th Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who called the nation's library "the Book Palace of the American people in which you all have equal rights with me, in which the works of all of you will be welcomed and forever preserved."
Book Palace, indeed! I can't say I've ever really cared much about who was Librarian of Congress before, but after learning about what she accomplished for the Baltimore libraries, I am truly excited to see what Dr. Hayden does for the nation's library.
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