Women of the Year 2003
Carla Diane Hayden
By Catherine Orenstein
When the FBI came snooping, Carla Diane Hayden proved librarians are more freedom fighters than shushers.
“Are you sure? Me? A librarian?” That was Carla Diane Hayden’s reaction when she learned she’d been named one of Ms.’s Women of the Year. It’s not that she’s unaware of the importance of her work as president of the American Library Association (ALA)—with 45,000 branches, it is the most powerful library association in the world. But it’s unusual, she says, to be noticed for it.
“Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted,” says Hayden. “And they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.”
But Hayden knew exactly what was at risk when the USA PATRIOT Act became law. Among other things, the act allows the FBI to snoop into your library records—and check out what you’ve been checking out.
Hmmm. Looking into library records? So what? Sounds innocuous at first—until you think about how the tactic has been used before. “In the McCarthy era,” says Hayden, “that sort of thing was used as a fishing expedition against certain kinds of people. The FBI went looking into people’s records, into what they read for information that could be used against them. Readers didn’t know they were being investigated, and the librarians couldn’t legally tell them.” Librarians who refused to cooperate were investigated as well.
Some states passed privacy laws in the last two decades to protect library records. But the USA PATRIOT Act has overridden those laws. “What someone reads doesn’t necessarily say anything about what they might do—there’s no link between interest and intent. Librarians are charged with a public trust. We are there to help [people] access information; we are not in the business of judgment,” she says.
As a result of the ALA’s advocacy, Attorney General John Ashcroft has said he would declassify information about law enforcement’s requests for library records. Hayden says that’s not enough: “[The law] should be changed.”
Hayden’s stance against the PATRIOT Act is part and parcel of her vision of the library as an integral element of democracy. “We serve the underserved,” Hayden says. “When libraries fight against the PATRIOT Act, or against [mandatory Internet filters], we’re fighting for the public. Most of the people who use public libraries don’t have the opportunity to buy books at a bookstore or on Amazon.com. What the library does is protect the rights of all people to fully and freely access information and to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.”
Hayden is only the second African American woman to lead the ALA. She relishes challenging stereotypes and expectations. “When people ask what’s unusual about me being the ALA’s president, the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m African American, but really what’s more significant is that I’m a woman—because even though it’s a female-dominated field, most library directors are men.”
The marketplace itself is catching on. A toy company recently began selling a librarian “action figure” doll, modeled after a real-life librarian. The doll—which is white, wears glasses and sensible shoes, and features “amazing shushing action” (it raises a finger to its lips)—angered some who felt it perpetuates negative stereotypes. Hayden, however, is “happy we made it into toy stores”—though she hopes the next doll the company comes up with will be “a male librarian with dreadlocks…like the one who works at our library.”
In 1876, Melvil Dewey, a founder of the ALA, considered women well-suited to the repetitive nature of library work: writing in longhand, filing cards. They had patience, he said, and were able to sit for long periods. They also “didn’t cause trouble.”
Right. Mr. Dewey, more than the decimal system has changed. “These days you can see the progression [from that stereotype of the past] to women—and men—who are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship,” says Hayden. “Now we are fighters for freedom, and we cause trouble! We are not sitting quietly anymore.”