Building a ‘People’s Library’

February 1, 2021

For Black History Month, we’re reflecting on the significance of contemporary leaders in the United States alongside the work of the activists who came before them, and their fight for equitable representation and justice.

When people ask Carla Hayden about the significance of being the first Black woman to lead the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, she often references a moment from Frederick Douglass’s life when he was just 11 or 12 years old.

That was when Douglass's enslaver, Hugh Auld, discovered that Douglass had been learning the alphabet.

Auld’s wife, Sophia, was teaching Douglass, and “[Auld] saw her and said ‘Don’t do that,’” Hayden recalled to CBS News in 2020, “and that’s when Frederick Douglass knew reading must be important.”

If he learned to read, Douglass heard Auld tell his wife, then that knowledge would “forever unfit him” to be enslaved.

“The very decided manner with which he spoke and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom … the argument against my learning to read only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.” — From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Historic appointment

For Hayden, who’s had a long career as a professional librarian and community leader, this legacy of violence and suppression imbues her leadership with personal meaning. “As a descendant of people who were denied the right to read — who were punished with lashes and worse for learning — to now have the opportunity to serve and lead the institution that is the national symbol of knowledge is a historic moment,” she noted during her 2016 swearing-in ceremony.

In interviews, Hayden occasionally makes reference to Alberto Manguel’s book “A History of Reading,” where he writes: “As centuries of dictators have known, an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule; since the craft of reading cannot be untaught once it has been acquired, the second-best recourse is to limit its scope.” 

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden (foreground) with Tougaloo Nine students.

Resisting limitations

Though Frederick Douglass himself is attributed with having said that “once you learn to read, you’ll be forever free,” the pathway to obtaining equitable access has never been linear — rather, as the scholar Shaundra Walker put it in her essay on the provision of academic library buildings for Black colleges, racial progress in libraries often sputters back and forth.

In the early 1900s, Black Americans were kept out of public libraries across the country, including Carnegie branches that were supposed “palaces for the people,” while the “separate but equal” policies of Plessy v. Ferguson ushered in the construction of facilities that were underfunded and inferior to those offered to white people. In the face of this, and with public attention brought forth by scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois, Black activists would succeed in securing funds to build libraries for and by Black Americans, with autonomous control, in places like Houston, Louisville, and Charlotte, decades before desegregation.

And as Jim Crow laws endured in the 1960s, college students would lead the fight for equal access to main library branches by staging “read-ins'' at the locations that denied them access. The groups of students known as the Tougaloo Nine in Jackson, Mississippi, and the Greenville Eight in South Carolina, were arrested for the carefully planned act of quietly reading library books in those main branches. After arrests in Jackson, subsequent peaceful protests were met by local police with tear gas and dogs, and in Greenville, the mayor shut down both white and Black branches rather than accept court-ordered integration.

One of the organizers of the Greenville Eight was a young Jesse Jackson, then only 18. Though he went to college in Illinois, he’d been visiting his hometown earlier that year and had needed a book to write a paper that was not available at the library's “colored branch.” When he attempted to access the main library and was told by police officers that he needed to leave, he said, “I just stared up at that Greenville Public Library [sign] and tears came to my eyes. I said to myself, ‘that thing says public, and my father’s a veteran and pays taxes …. When I get back home this summer, I’m going to use that library.’” A read-in was later organized with guidance from the local South Carolina chapter of the NAACP.

Despite attempts to suppress them, these read-ins and demonstrations did have an effect on moving the needle of justice forward. In Greenville, legal and public pressure would prompt the mayor to reopen both branches of the library and — though he did not state so directly, as George Eberhart writes in American Libraries magazine — they would thereafter be integrated. In South Carolina, Black student activists’ efforts led to a class action lawsuit filed by the NAACP that led to the Jackson Public Library’s desegregation in 1962.

Continuing the work 

These days, while libraries are increasingly seen through the lens of accessible community spaces and places of refuge, the profession is still overwhelmingly white, and academic libraries in particular face the hurdle of being rooted within the legacy of white supremacy in academia. The commitment of libraries across the country to disrupt whiteness in library spaces and provide better representation, rooted in active antiracist principles, is ongoing. (Read about the U-M Library’s strategic efforts.)

In the years since Hayden has been at the helm, the Library of Congress has made significant strides in being reenvisioned as a “people’s library,” with emphasis and funding put toward stories that have not been traditionally told, valued, or preserved in such spaces, with fellowships, residencies, and training programs open to underrepresented artists and activists who want to explore or add their work to the library’s holdings.

Efforts to digitize the vast collections at the Library of Congress are also underway, with the goal of making its cultural artifacts accessible online to everyone. (This work, too, comes with lessons, as the library’s holdings have included materials historically collected without people’s consent.)

While serving as president of the American Library Association in 2003, Hayden was named one of Ms. Magazine’s “Women of the Year” for her opposition to the PATRIOT Act’s allowance for the FBI to access people’s library records. To Hayden, the act hearkened back to the McCarthy era and its investigations of people considered “un-American.”

“Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy,” she told the magazine in 2003, “where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk … These days you can see the progression to women and men who are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship. Now we are fighters for freedom, and we cause trouble! We are not sitting quietly anymore.”

by Emily Buckler

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

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