Making a Difference in Our Nation’s Library: An Interview with Dr. Carla Hayden

In 2016 Dr. Carla Hayden was confirmed as the fourteenth Librarian of Congress — the first African American and the first woman to hold that position. Horn Book editor in chief Roger Sutton and Dr. Hayden go way back, to their days at the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago. In February, Roger interviewed Dr. Hayden at her office in Washington, DC, complete with a stellar view of the U.S. Capitol Building.


Roger Sutton: I’m here at the Library of Congress with Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress. But we knew each other in another life, some forty years ago. I was at the University of Chicago getting my master’s in library science; you were getting your PhD.

Carla Hayden: Forty years ago, who would have thought that we would be sitting here today! It’s like we were just in Zena Sutherland’s office working with her on The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. And here we are!

RS: What I’d like to talk with you about today is that era of your professional life, as well as how you became a librarian to begin with. But first, as part of our “Making a Difference” special issue theme, we’ve asked more than a dozen authors and illustrators about a book that changed their life. So, Carla, what is the book that changed your life?

CH: People always ask, “What’s your favorite book?” and I keep saying, “Well, I haven’t read that yet.” But there are books that have meant a lot to me and that I hold with affection, and an important one is Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli. It was the book that taught me about library fines, because I kept checking it out and out!

RS: How did you find it?

CH: I attended P.S. 96 in Jamaica, Queens, New York. There was a storefront library across from school, and I would go there every afternoon. I don’t remember if a librarian helped me or if I discovered the book on my own. I was about seven. I was a Brownie, and I was brown, and here was a book that featured a little girl with two pigtails who was a Brownie and had the same outfit I had on. I wanted to be April. I thought I looked like her, because she was so pretty, and the book was pretty, and I just loved it. Years later, when we were working with Zena and I was really into my research on the representation of African Americans in children’s literature, Bright April appeared on a list as a book full of stereotypes. I remember how I felt: Oh no, not Bright April! It really made me think about what we, as adults, see in children’s books, and how that might be different from what a child is looking at. It helped me reframe how I talk about depictions and illustrations in children’s books.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in her DC office. Photo: Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

RS: You showed me letters you’ve received from people who had read Bright April and who also saw themselves in it, but not for the reasons you might think.

CH: And that’s what surprised me, because I’ve talked a lot about books being mirrors and windows, and made assumptions about which was which. But I received this note:

Dear Ms. Hayden, I just read your short biography in the Times. It struck a deep chord with me. I was a second-grader, and as a dyslexic, knew I would be spending my summer trying to learn to read. As I struggled home with twenty-one books, with twine hurting my hand — that was seven books a month for three months — all the other kids were carrying theirs easily. But one of those twenty-one books was Bright April. I too loved that book, and because of it I have loved pink all my life. Remember April’s pink dress? It may be the first book I actually read and understood, and it was a turning point for me. I was a skinny handicapped girl in northern Minnesota. But I was touched just as you were. Books can do that.

And I thought, Oh my gosh. What she described, what it meant to her, that outsider feeling — that book touched her.

RS: What else did you read as a child?

CH: I read just about everything. I got hooked on Anne Boleyn at age twelve. My grandmother had a book called Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. When you’re twelve, anything with that kind of title — whoa. And it was wonderful, because I didn’t know about half of the things that Anne Boleyn was doing, or what she was up to, but I knew that this book was something. My grandmother was a great reader, and she also had a book called Hollywood Babylon.

RS: Oh, I know that book.

CH: True crime. Fatty Arbuckle, all these different crimes, murders, with the photographs. I still have my grandmother’s copy. She’s been gone for a long time. But that was the lure; you knew this was something you weren’t supposed to read.

RS: I remember you and I talking about this in the 1980s, when Flowers in the Attic came out. Kids loved it because it was about forbidden things. I guess I shouldn’t admit this to a fellow librarian, but there is something to be said for censorship, because kids like reading things or seeing things or doing things that they’re not supposed to see or read or do.

CH: Right, that’s the attraction. The beauty of banned books, in one way, is that always on those lists are some great books, great works of literature. And so to have a whole campaign saying these are banned books — young people are going to read them because they’ve been banned. And they’re actually good!

RS: If Bright April turned you into a devoted reader, what turned you into
 a librarian?

CH: I was already a reader before Bright April; it just offered the added, wonderful part about seeing myself in the book. To love a book and then to see yourself reflected in something you love was a double whammy. Wow, I’m in a book! When children or young people see themselves reflected, it’s also hooking them into whatever that is they’re looking at.

About becoming a librarian — I was an accidental librarian in Chicago. I had just graduated (undergrad) from Roosevelt University in history and political science. I didn’t know what to do with my life; had never really worked; and now needed to work. In between job interviews where they invariably told me I didn’t have any experience, I would go hang out at the central library. One day a person who had just graduated with me said, “Hey, are you here for those library jobs? They’re hiring anybody.” Wait, they’re hiring anybody? I went right upstairs to personnel, and that’s when I was introduced to the profession of librarianship. At that point, like a lot of people, I didn’t even realize that there were people who selected the materials; what a librarian might do.

RS: People think you’re the person at the desk stamping their books.

CH: And they don’t think about how the desk got there, or how the building was designed, or anything like that. My first assignment was with a children’s librarian, Judith Zucker, who was going to the Graduate Library School at the University of Chicago. I was paired with her in children’s services. I already loved kids, but by then I was really getting into the literature. And then taking the course with Zena — that was it. What I appreciate now even more was Zena’s respect for the intelligence of young people, that they deserve good literature. That was her first criterion. They deserve the best. Why don’t we respect them?

RS: But one thing I confronted after library school — I remember Zena saying that for books like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, kids can buy those with their own pocket money. But as soon as I was working out in the field I realized, These kids don’t have pocket money. They don’t have any money. If they do have money, they’re going to spend it on candy, clothes, food. They’re not going to spend it on books. So I had to adjust my University of Chicago “they-should-read-only-the-best” thinking to: children should read what they want, and the public library should provide it for them.

CH: That’s where working in challenged areas — impoverished rural areas; cities; reservations — you realize that yes, that’s the value of a public library. They can allow kids to have the Nancy Drews, and then they can also have other things. You might hook them on the candy, get them going — somebody called it a gateway drug — but you have to provide a full range of offerings. I do miss it sometimes.

RS: How long has it been since you’ve done direct service with young people?

CH: Well, I’ve been cheating. I’ve kept my hand in by doing something once a month at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore — I’ll do a story time, or I’ll talk to teens about what they’re reading. That connection is really helpful for me. For one thing, it reminds me: This is what you’re doing all the budgets and all the other administrative things for, to make sure kids have what they need, and what they might not even know that they need. I’ve been able to do that even here at the Library of Congress, to participate in author programs or tell stories. I’ve also gotten caught not reading aloud the exact thing on the page, as one young man pointed out. “You’re not reading that book!”

RS: Keeps you honest.

CH: Keeps you honest whenever you’re around children. That’s been important for me throughout, as I went more into the administrative part of librarianship: to be at the desk, see people coming in, and talk to them about what they need.

RS: Can you do that here?

CH: I can. One of the challenges here is that I might not be as familiar with the material. Some of the questions are a little more advanced, so I might not be able to help.

RS: But you can find someone who can.

CH: Oh, I can point with the best of them. But I’m not pointing. I’m not pointing!

RS: “Get up from the chair!”

CH: Get up from the chair, go find the book, lead the person over.

RS: I find that whatever job I’ve had since being a children’s librarian, there’s stuff I learned there, about managing a place or people.

The Horn Book Magazine in good company on Dr. Hayden's bookshelf.

CH: ALSC had a series on children’s librarians as managers, and how those skills that you use working with young people translate into administration. And I have found even to this day that it’s so true. Once you can manage — similar to teachers in some ways — working with young people, you see the personalities, you know how to be agile, you know how to deal with disruptions, all types of things. It’s fascinating sometimes. You’re drawing more on your experience working with young people, and teenagers, too, who can be a little troublesome. They’re not cute like the three- and four-year-olds. And in groups, how do you isolate and what do you do? Being a young adult librarian really helps you as well. A youth librarian: the best thing.

RS: All that emphasis, too, on story hours and going into schools to do book talks, and all that group work that you do with kids and teenagers, really does translate into: how do I negotiate with a bunch of people?

CH: Plus all the people who work with those children — the teachers, administrators, parents, caregivers. You’re dealing with them too.

RS: All these different constituencies, who expect something slightly different.

CH: That’s right. So that series on helping librarians see their professional experiences as translatable was great. It was a lot of fun, too. We would use different stories — what’s the management lesson in “Henny Penny”?

RS: Well, it seems like you’ve learned your lessons.

CH: I’ve learned my lessons.

RS: Your view out this window…

CH: Oh, the view. It is the Library of Congress, and there’s Congress right over there in the Capitol Building. It is wonderful in this country that a library is seen as a partner with the legislative body. In this day and age, it’s even more important.

RS: At a time when our society is so politically fractured, the Library of Congress is a place where everybody seems at home.

CH: I just had a discussion with a Congressman about the fact that the Library of Congress is their safe place, too, just like it is in the communities they serve. A nonpartisan place. I think that helps provide an appreciation of the value of libraries in their communities, because we’re doing it for those legislators, too.

RS: If you want a place that shows the importance of respecting what different people think—

CH: It’s a library.

RS: There is no better place in the damn world than a library for that.

CH: Remember when the motto was: Let the books battle it out on the shelves? We had something to offend everyone, and we were proud of that. Yes, we’ll put them right there. You decide. That’s almost a creed.

RS: Libraries present people with the world, basically. All kinds of crazy ideas and smart ideas and ideas I agree with and ideas I loathe.

CH: Ideas that worked and didn’t work. Ideas from a long time ago, new ideas, all of that. And you get to decide. You get to pick. Think of the freedom that gives you, that you can pick what you want to read. That’s the essence of the whole thing.

RS: The best thing in the world.

Library school classmates Carla Hayden and Roger Sutton. Photo: Shawn Miller, Library of Congress.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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