Politics & Policy

Obama Politicizes Even the Library of Congress

Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. (Gary Blakeley/Dreamstime)

There really is nothing that the Obama administration will not saddle with the yoke of identity politics. The latest target is the Library of Congress. For the position of librarian, vacant since the retirement of Reagan appointee James H. Billington last fall, Obama has appointed Carla D. Hayden, who, if confirmed, “would be the first woman and the first African American to hold the position,” the president noted in his nomination statement, “both of which are long overdue.”

Perhaps the president emphasized Hayden’s potentially “historic” confirmation because her qualifications for the position are so thin. While Hayden is an accomplished woman in her field — she has been CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Md., since 1993, and from 2003 to 2004 she was the president of the American Library Association — she is not suited to the position of librarian of Congress. This was made embarrassingly apparent last month when the White House released a four-minute commercial touting Hayden for the job. In the video, Hayden describes her work with neighborhood libraries in Baltimore: “opportunity centers” where you could “get the latest Harry Potter as soon as it came out . . . apply for a job . . . and find that step up in your life.” And she touts how Baltimore libraries “became a site for people to actually get food, to get supplies” during last year’s riots.

That’s all very nice, but it has nothing to do with the Library of Congress or the role of its librarian. No one is ducking into the Library of Congress to pick up “the latest Harry Potter” — and they couldn’t check it out if they tried. The Library of Congress is not just another library.

#share#Signed into law by John Adams in the spring of 1800 for the purpose of purchasing “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress,” the Library of Congress is, first and foremost, the go-to research center for the 535 members of the federal legislature. But over two centuries–plus, it has also become the de facto repository of the intellectual artefacts of American civilization — the storehouse of much of our knowledge and culture, and thus of much of the world’s. That has made it a destination for researchers from across the globe.

The Library of Congress is not the place for ideological agenda-pushing. It’s a place for serious, public-spirited scholarship.

For that reason, recent appointees have not been librarians — the library’s 3,000-person staff already has plenty of those — but noted scholars and historians, who have served as the nation’s unofficial “scholar-in-chief.” There have been only 13 appointed librarians in the country’s history, and until last year they served lifetime terms (they will now serve renewable ten-year terms). Billington was a Rhodes scholar, a professor of history at Harvard and Princeton, and a longtime director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars before his appointment in 1987. He succeeded well-known scholar and prolific author Daniel J. Boorstin, whose 1973 book The Americans: The Democratic Experience had won the Pulitzer Prize for history. From 1939 to 1944, the librarian of Congress was a poet, Archibald MacLeish (who resigned his position to serve as an assistant secretary of state).

Hayden is not a scholar. She has edited one book — Venture into Cultures: A Resource Book of Multicultural Materials and Programs — and published a smattering of articles, mostly on race and library access. She is, if anything, an activist. “We are fighters for freedom,” she told Ms. magazine in 2003, waxing grandiose about “the social work aspect of librarianship.” The Nation recently called her a “radical librarian.”

If President Obama wants to promote Hayden’s professional talents, her fervor for social work, and the community-spiritedness she has demonstrated during her time in Baltimore, he could make her the first head of his presidential library. It would be a suitable homecoming; Hayden and the Obamas first met through the public-library system in Chicago.

The Library of Congress, though, is not the place for ideological agenda-pushing. It’s a place for serious, public-spirited scholarship, and much better candidates than Carla Hayden are available to facilitate that mission.


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