Following incumbent Librarian of Congress James Billington’s retirement, some conservatives have convened around the idea that the next person to head the library ought to be a prestigious scholar, rather than a professional library administrator like Carla Hayden — President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Billington.
It appears that these critics have failed to give proper consideration to the library’s unique challenges – or the skills needed to modernize and make accessible the tremendous wealth of knowledge in its collection.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation scholar who focuses on civil justice and election issues, lays out the most in-depth case against Hayden in a series of articles at the conservative outlet PJ Media.
First of all, von Spakovsky suggests Obama chose Hayden because she’s a black woman and “his administration has an unofficial quota system.” Secondly, he is overlooking Hayden’s qualifications as a librarian: She has a doctorate in library science from the University of Chicago; taught at the University of Pittsburgh; served as CEO of the City of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, one of the oldest public library systems in the nation; served as president of the American Library Association; and was named National Librarian of the Year.
Von Spakovsky, to bolster a weak argument, also appeals to tradition to oppose Hayden. Since the Library of Congress was created by an act of Congress in 1800, there have been 13 librarians. Not all were esteemed scholars. The first librarian of Congress, John J. Beckley, was a politician, campaign manager and former clerk of the House of Representatives. Other librarians came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, which have included physicians, journalists, poets, lawyers and also several experienced library administrators.
The librarian of Congress does the kinds of things you would expect a librarian to do. It’s therefore strange to see so many conservatives claiming that we need a “scholar-in-chief,” without thinking very deeply about it. For instance, the National Review editorial board’s complaint that Obama “politicizes” the library in nominating a professional library administrator like Hayden is as ridiculous as it is ironic for failing to understand its historical context. The original idea of nominating a “scholar-in-chief,” of course, was to politicize it.
The librarian can help make the library’s vast collections available online; create new means of access for the disabled; increase engagement with stakeholders; better organize existing resources; and improve access to congressional information. Moreover, be a progressive and innovative with a demonstrated record of accomplishments in dealing with complex issues in a multicultural environment. An exceptional people manager. The librarian is very comfortable engaging directly with the public and displays a passion for working with and serving people. An expert communicator, with seasoned diplomatic skills and a talent in bringing people together. This individual must thrive on change and be flexible, adaptable and willing to work in a progressive, ever transforming environment. As a trend-spotter and risk-taker, this person has a knack for assessing community needs and trying out innovative solutions. The ideal candidate is outward looking, enthusiastic and tireless. She or he is not only a leader, but a developer of leaders. But to accomplish these goals, a librarian is needed to make things happen.
Scholars and poets are nice, but they don’t know how to run a library any more than a former Federal Election Commission member like von Spakovsky.
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