Using Knowledge to Inform, Inspire, and Engage: Perspectives on Equal Access from the Largest Library in the World

MARK RICCOBONO:  I'm really jazzed about this next presentation. Using knowledge to inform, inspire, and engage: Perspectives on equal access from the largest library in the world. And our presenter is another first for us at this convention. She was sworn in as the 14th Librarian of Congress on September 14, 2016. She is the first woman and the first African-American to lead this national library. NFB provided a letter of support to the United States Congress when she was in the confirmation process. We knew her because prior to this post, she served since 1993 as the CEO of the Enoch Pratt free library right here in Baltimore Maryland, where she still lives. The first -- I do believe this is the first time we've had the Librarian of Congress, and she was definitely worth waiting for! We talk about the library every year, are really pleased that she's taken the time to be with us personally. She says in many places that she is working to making a librarian cool! And I think she's definitely achieving that. I've had the opportunity to meet with an a number of times and I have to say our nation is blessed to have her overseeing not only the library for the blind, but also all of the other tremendous and inspirational artifacts of the Library of Congress. Here is Carla Hayden!

(Think by Aretha Franklin playing) CARLA HAYDEN: Thank you for that introduction. And that music was really something. I'm a child of two musicians, I'm a librarian because I have no talent. Thank you for that! It's because I'm not able to be there in person, the power of technology allows me to be with you. It's my privilege to spend some time with you from Baltimore. And I also want to acknowledge the recent passing of another Baltimorean and member of the Federation, Mr. Charles Cook, who was so instrumental in designing technological solutions. And we are thinking of his family during this time.

It's also an honor to speak with you from the perspective of the Library of Congress now because it gives me an opportunity to share with you the hard work of librarians and the devotion of many people across this country, providing access so that, quote, all may read. The motto of the national library for the blind and print disabled. That name was changed recently. And you may know that the division was officially established by an act of Congress in 1931. However, the Library's access and commitment to providing materials to support adults and children who are blind became a significant part of the library's mission when it moved into its first home, the magnificent Thomas Jefferson building, designed to resemble an Italian palace, to signify that in this country, we built palaces to knowledge and wisdom, and not to wealth. It was mentioned that in 1897 opened a special reading room with mahogany tables where books with raised print were available and readings were held. One of the first public programs featured renowned poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, at the time a Library of Congress staff member, and he read from this work. Material over the years was acquired by gift and purchase. And really supplemented in 1913, when Congress passed a law that said that one copy of every raised type book produced in the United States be deposited at the Library of Congress. And then, and you'll appreciate this, after years of urging, in 1931, the Pratt Smoke Act was passed by Congress and approved by the president to appropriate funds for a national free library program that allowed the Library of Congress to not only distribute reading materials, but produce them for regional libraries for circulation free of charge. In 1952, a year I know well, the service was expanded to children, teens, and in 1962, to include music materials, and in 1966 to include free service to individuals with other disabilities. And beginning with 19 libraries, the network has expanded to 55 regional libraries, 26 subregional libraries, and 16 advisory and outreach centers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. However, from my perspective at the Library of Congress now, it really shows me that this network of libraries is providing one of the bedrock services to equal access of materials that inform, inspire, and engage. Frederick Douglass once said, once you learn to read, you'll be forever free. And then Alberto Manguel, in his history of reading, he said, as dictators, slave owners, and other illicit holders of power have always known, an illiterate crowd is the easiest to rule. And if you cannot prevent people from learning to read and being able to read, the next best recourse is to limit its scope. And libraries were established to support literacy and to be a key to opportunity. And the library world in general has had a commitment to ensuring equal access for all. And that access means everyone should have the opportunity to be empowered by libraries. They are the places that hold the materials to inspire and cultivate the possibilities of humans. There is a book -- I'm a librarian -- that I been referring to a lot in the last couple years. It's Eric Klinenberg's Palaces for the People. He's said in recent years, to restore society, restore the power of the library. It echoes what we've been saying for years, that libraries are equalizers. I've seen equal access to materials from the beginning of my career in an urban public library system, the Chicago public library, that established an NLS regional library. Years later, I was able to be firsthand with the NLS at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore that was physically and programmatically connected to the Maryland NLS. I even got a chance to conduct story times. Libraries have always evolved to adapt to the needs of communities. And the Library of Congress' partnerships and networks help ensure that those opportunities are accessible to everyone. In 2013, the Library of Congress announced the availability of the braille automobile recording download, BARD, which allows patrons to download braille and talking books to phones without cost, and to provide refreshable braille devices. Equal access from this standpoint means continuing to enhance and upgrade that system as the world continues on a digital path, and that path has been most strikingly emphasized in the recent months. Equal access means making sure that the NLS provides everyone the opportunity to get accurate, objective information for all of their needs. Equal access means that the NLS and the network provide materials in braille for children that allows a young person to be inspired by the biographies of people like Rosa Parks. Equal access means being engaged by a concert by a young jazz pianist, Jose Andre, who is also blind, and is now performing online after being live streamed. A recent op-ed piece published by Forbes magazine this summer had an interesting headline: Amazon should replace libraries to save taxpayers money.

Now, as you might imagine, this piece was greeted by outrage, not even by librarians, but library users from every sector worldwide. In fact, the uproar was so loud, Forbes deleted and took down the article. And I might add, rightfully so. Now, as librarian of Congress, I've been part of the amazing and brilliant work of libraries across the world. Whether it's at a sprawling urban library system or small rural library, all together in the recognition of the critical need to access services and technologies by all people. And libraries have learned to adapt to the changing needs of diverse communities, and they're continuing to try to harness the power of technology to provide materials in all formats to inform, inspire, and engage. The Library of Congress recently launched a new strategic plan to be even more user-centered. Part of this plan is a digital strategy that will harness technology to bridge not only geographical divides, but every divide that prevents us from expanding our reach and enhancing our services. That means we will continue to throw open what's been called the Library of Congress's treasure chest. The world's largest library. And it will allow us to connect with all users and cultivate an innovation culture. And it's starting now. For instance, NLS has launched a blog, Music Notes, that highlights lesser known materials and activities and people in the music department and some of the items featured in the blogs have been profiled on braille transcribers, and they work. Free braille giveaways. As well as interviews with patrons. On social media. And so, as I close, I just want to assure you that the Library of Congress will continue to join libraries nationwide to provide equal access, and to be more aggressive in our outreach to work with libraries and communities across the nation. Whether it's working with local librarians to working with teachers and librarians in schools, we want to share the resources of the largest library in the world. I think I can just say, I had one of the largest, but I'll just say, it is the largest in the world, with everyone. One of the primary reasons for instituting a national program like NLS was to decrease the difficulty and the high cost for individual libraries to acquire materials in special formats. And we will continue to offer books and other materials in as many ways as possible, free to all regardless of age, economic circumstances, or, increasingly, technological expertise. That is what equal access to inform, inspire, and engage means from the perspective of the Library of Congress. It is an honor for me to be a librarian at this time. I really want to thank you for including the Library of Congress and with me the library community in your conference. You should know that we're your partners, marching together in equal access. Thank you for including me.

MARK RICCOBONO: Thank you, Dr. Hayden, and thank you for the shoutout to Charlie Cook, we appreciate that, and your leadership in making sure equal access is an important value, especially as the library thinks about how to do innovative things in the digital realm. We appreciate sharing Baltimore with you. So thank you for being with us

CARLA HAYDEN: Yes, still live here.

MARK RICCOBONO: And we will support you in moving the National Library Service closer to the Capitol where it belongs. We appreciate your leadership on many things, including moving the National Library Service to a place of prominence on Capitol Hill. Stay safe. Look forward to our next opportunity to be together. Thank you.

CARLA HAYDEN: Thank you so much.