Tuesday, September 20, 2016

First Word: The 14th Librarian of Congress Erin Allen

Carla Hayden discusses her decision to become a librarian and her plans as the new Librarian of Congress.

You are about to be sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress. How does that feel?

It’s such an honor to be nominated by the president and sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress. As a career librarian it’s really almost a dream come true. The confirmation process was really an eye-opener for me in so many ways, because I got to meet legislators that are committed to not only the nation’s history, but making information available. So many of the legislators were historians. There were a few that were actually musicians and that really had an interest in the Library of Congress. It was just a wonderful thing that made me very pleased that I was confirmed, and that I’ll have an opportunity to work with people who understand the importance of the Library of Congress.

When did you decide to become a librarian?

Librarianship really has been an adventure for me. To find out that there was a profession that was dedicated to making books, reading and knowledge available to people, that just seemed ideal. When I discovered that librarianship was a profession, I was coming out of undergraduate studies and thinking about what I was going to do next. I saw a colleague who had just graduated and they said, “They’re hiring people at the Chicago Public Library.” So I went and became a library associate. Within a week I was assigned to a small storefront library on the south side of Chicago, working with a young lady who was going to graduate school. She was on the floor, in jeans, having story time with children with autism. I thought, “Wait a minute. This is a different type of profession. You’re bringing things right to people.” I was hooked. Seeing what libraries could do in communities and how they could help people just opened my eyes.

So, at this point in my career, to be part of an institution like the Library of Congress is the ultimate in terms of what started with getting hooked on the profession back then.

How do you think your perspective will be reflected in the institution during your tenure?

As the first woman and the first African American to hold the position of Librarian of Congress, I think my perspective will be part of a continuum of the past librarians who came from different professions and backgrounds. There have been lawyers. There have been librarians. There have been publishers and authors and historians and scholars. So I think that I will be adding on to their different perspectives. While being a caretaker, I’ll be someone who is carrying the torch, too.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for the library?

The biggest opportunity for the Library is to make its wonderful treasures available to people in various formats using technology as a tool. So many collections are already digitized and available online. The opportunity to work with potential donors and those who are interested in seeing these treasures made available to everyone will be a wonderful adventure.

We also must make sure that while this is happening we’re taking care of the basic responsibilities of the Library as well—serving Congress, maintaining a robust Copyright Office that makes sure that creators and the users of content are served effectively and making sure that everyone has access to the Library’s collections.

What is your vision for the nation’s library under your stewardship?

My vision for the Library of Congress is to make people aware that it is part of their national heritage and that everyone can find something in the Library of Congress—or produced by the Library—that relates to them, their classroom curriculum or where they want to go in life.

“Librarians are,” as the t-shirt slogan says, “the original search engines.” Library of Congress staff members are considered to be the ultimate in terms of professional librarianship. So I’m really excited about getting their input and taking advantage of their experience as we work together to chart a course to the future.

What I hope to accomplish with the dedicated staff of the Library in the next 10 years of my appointment is to make more of the collections accessible in various formats. If we can make an increasing number of collections available digitally—especially those that are heavily used or tied in with school curriculums around the country— I think would be quite an accomplishment

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