Carla Hayden has an audacious plan to make Library of Congress available to you online

CNET spoke with Hayden about her massive effort to digitize the biggest library in the world.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
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Library of Congress Jefferson Building Opens To Public
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Ambitious doesn't begin to describe Carla Hayden's plan to make the Library of Congress' collection available to the world. Audacious may be closer to it.

Hayden, the 14th person to steward the Library, wants to "throw open the treasure chest" by digitizing its vast collection and making it accessible online. The five-year plan's understated name -- Enriching the Library Experience -- doesn't capture its scope. Hayden wants people to engage with everything from the letters of Abraham Lincoln to early-edition Batman comics.

Library of Congress Swear In

Carla Hayden is the first African American and first woman to serve as the Librarian of Congress. Among other tasks, she is in charge of the library's ongoing digitization efforts.

Tom Williams

Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is the oldest cultural institution in the country. It houses the largest collection of photographs, maps, comic books and Bibles in the world. The shelving alone runs 826 miles, and that stores just some of its 170 million items, including 68 million manuscripts, 6.5 million pieces of music and more than 3.4 million recordings.

Hayden is both the first woman and the first African American to oversee the institution. She's also one of just three Librarians of Congress to have a professional background in the field of library sciences. (Other people to hold the post have been scholars, historians, lawyers and authors.)

She began her career as a children's librarian in 1973 at the Chicago Public Library. She also served as the head of the American Library Association and executive director of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. She was appointed as the Librarian of Congress in 2016 by President Barack Obama.

CNET sat down with Hayden just ahead of National Library Week to discuss the Library of Congress' digitization efforts and the role of libraries in the digital age. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.

Watch this: The Library of Congress is putting our historical treasures online

Tell me about the Library of Congress' five-year plan.
Hayden: We're throwing open the treasure chest, as we like to say, because this is the world's largest library, with so many unique items. We want to make these things accessible to people who could never come in person, so they can see our manuscripts division and see Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence with footnotes or little side notes, with BF for Benjamin Franklin and JA for John Adams.

Library of Congress

Where are you in the digitization process?
Hayden: The library has been digitizing its special collections for over 20 years. And we have made quite a bit of progress. For instance, in the past year, we've digitized more than 7.1 million items.

Most of the things that we're putting online now have never been able to be digitized before.

We've recently been putting up the collection of the baseball scout Branch Rickey, who wrote scouting reports for Ernie Banks and Henry "Hank" Aaron. When you put these things online, you are really expanding the reach. And so this is going to be a continuing effort because history never stops.

And we are continually getting special collections. We just purchased the collection of the composer Billy Strayhorn, who was a partner with Duke Ellington. You know, Take the A Train and all that. And we're digitizing the Rosa Parks collection.

The Library of Congress has tens of millions of items. How do you decide what to prioritize in terms of digitization?
Hayden: We're concentrating on the unique items that the library has, like the diary of Teddy Roosevelt, which shows on Feb. 14 [that] he put a big "X" because his mother and his wife died in the same house on the same day. And he said in that entry, "My life is finished."

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Tell me about the Library's 'By the People' crowdsourcing effort. 
Hayden: Quite a few institutions, like the National Archives, that have historic documents are using crowdsourcing to allow people to help with the transcriptions of historic documents that are often in very elaborate cursive writing.  

The Library of Congress is joining this effort. We started with the letters to Abraham Lincoln. We have some 28,000 letters that were written to Lincoln during his presidency that haven't been really seen or read widely. We want to get people involved with history. And they're helping bring history to life.

One of the items being transcribed is a diary from Civil War nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton. One of your staff showed me the actual diary, and her handwriting was so tiny. 
Hayden: In a lot of ways, what you're doing is almost translating when you're transcribing. I think most people have an appreciation of the variations in handwriting. We've also really engaged young people with that because it's like a different language for them.

I read that the library adds about 12,000 items to its collection every working day. Are all of these items books, letters or other written materials?
Hayden: No, we still get items in many, many formats. They could be in a book. They could be a map, a magazine or a digital file. Sometimes they could actually be an item. For instance, as part of the Rosa Parks collection, [we have] her Medal of Freedom. So you have a variety of formats and types of items. We even have pieces of hair. We have a lock of Beethoven's hair, as well as locks of Thomas Jefferson's hair. We also have the contents of Abraham Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.

As you put this vast and varied collection online, how do you ensure it's all searchable so people can find it?
Hayden: That's the wonderful part of being in a library and having experts in cataloging. We librarians call ourselves the original search engines. So we're experts at making sure that there are a variety of ways and terms that you can type in to get to an item.


The Next Chapter is a multipart series that examines the changing role of libraries in a connected world. 

James Martin/CNET

Now that the world has gone digital, do we even need actual paper books anymore?
Hayden: I'm smiling because the aspect of physical publishing that is doing the best right now is children's publishing and paperbacks. Captain Underpants is quite a perennial bestseller. There's still an appreciation for materials in printed formats. For instance, graphic novels are doing quite well with the teenagers. And people simply like having choices. You may take a paperback when you go to the beach, because you don't want to take your electronic device. But electronic readers may be better when you're traveling on an airplane. And so we're living in a great age in terms of being able to pick your format for what you want to do.

How do you like to read books? On a device or in a traditional book format?
Hayden: I like to read books in whichever way it comes. I'm a reader. Sometimes nonfiction works are better on the screen for me. But I think what is exciting for a person like me, as a lifelong reader, is that I have a choice.

What's your favorite collection or handwritten letter or historical artifact in the library collection?
Hayden: I don't have a favorite yet.

One of the reasons why I started using social media when I was sworn in was to bring the public along on my journey. The first thing I did as I left the stage was start a social media account. I said, I'm going on an adventure. And I'd like you to go with me, because there are more than 170 million items in the Library of Congress, 826 miles of shelf, and I'm going to explore.

Each day, there's potential to see something new. From seeing Rosa Parks' handwritten recipe for peanut butter pancakes to the next day seeing Diane Arbus' contact sheets with a wax pencil mark … to the next day seeing an original manuscript from Jonathan Larson with the lyrics from Seasons of Love.