First Things

Autumn has always been, for me, a time to hunker down, settle in, and take stock. Even here in my pleasant and hilly still-newish home, without the biting cold sweeping in on early twilights, I find myself readying for winter’s yin–for the heaviness that comes with deep, quiet reflection. That’s why fall can feel like an emotional rollercoaster with big swells and steep dips. This year I’ve noticed something new to add in my autumnal emotional palate: that queasy excitement and anxiety that comes with groundbreaking firsts.

  • My first time at a City Council meeting, along with my first time planting a ballot measure sign on my lawn (and the first time I’ve had to repeatedly reposition said sign because lawn signs are apparently irresistible to children). Yes on K!
  • My, and my son’s, first experience with preschool, along with my first experience as a teacher’s assistant, and, also, our first cold season where my son can blow his nose (I never knew how much I would appreciate nose-blowing skills).
  • My first time incurring overdue fines at the Pleasant Hill Library (just doing my part to generate library revenue), along with my first time collaborating with the Pleasant Hill community via Facebook and Twitter to curate and craft a nomination for the “I Love My Librarian” award.
Autumn in Yosemite. Photo credit: Loïc Lagarde via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Beyond me, enormous firsts have occurred that make me well up with tears: it is the first time a female candidate has been nominated by a major political party for the presidency, and she–let’s linger a moment on the pronoun–she may actually have a shot at taking the Office. It is the first time when young girls, like my tweenage and teenage nieces, can legitimately say, and mean, “I want to be President of the United States.” I am awestruck at the gravity of this momentous first. I am so glad to witness it in my lifetime.

Photo credit: Jef Parker (Own work), [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

On September 14, the first woman, and African-American, Dr. Carla Hayden, was sworn into lead the Library of Congress. Her gender and race are both remarkable to the appointment, and yet there is more: Hayden is also one of the few heads in the Library’s history who is actually a trained librarian–she started as the Children’s Librarian in the Chicago Public Library. In an interview with the New Yorker’s Daniel Gross, Hayden said that experience “trained her as a manager. ‘If you can negotiate story time with three- and four-year-olds,” she said, ‘that’s a skill you can take all the way up.’”

Chief Justice John Roberts swears in Carla Hayden with her mother, Colleen, holding the Lincoln bible and Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan / Photograph by Shawn Miller for The Library of Congress

In an interview for NPR, Michel Martin asked Hayden what it means to be a first. Hayden talked about the field’s legacy of male leadership and how she saw an opportunity. She continued:

To be the first female Librarian of Congress speaks to what Melvil Dewey said when he started the Library Association in 1876 and decided that women might be good for the profession because – and I love this quote – they had a high tolerance for pain and monotonous work and that it was time to let women into the profession of librarianship because there was a lot of work to be done.

Dr. Hayden certainly has her work cut out for her digitizing, and making fully accessible, the 162 million items in the world’s largest library–in itself another gigantic first. She said she would tweet her way through her discoveries. The head Librarian of Congress as @librarycongress, tweeting–another first, in 140 characters.

Firsts can be tiny or gigantic. They can be exciting and terrifying. First can shake up a routine or shatter a ceiling. Firsts are agents of change. Most importantly, firsts create an opportunity for seconds, and thirds, and so on. This idea of doing something to create opportunity really resonates with me. Dr. Carla Hayden, and, I would say, all librarians, emphasize this as the undercurrent of their service.

What I find most remarkable about Dr. Carla Hayden and her appointment, though, isn’t a first. It’s this:

When Michel Martin asked Hayden, “Tell me, though, at this point in our history, what is the Library of Congress for? I mean, what is a library for?”, Hayden responded:

The library now is even more of a sanctuary and even an opportunity center for so many people. And I’ve been very heartened by the – and I don’t want to get into too many statistics – but the fact that public libraries are used at record numbers now. It’s the physical space. It’s the people that are available for you. We call librarians the original search engines because there is so much information, and you can get a lot of things at your fingertips.

But what you don’t get is that guide on the side, a person who can help you negotiate and think about things, who will help you with this information superhighway, which can be very confusing. And people are wanting to be with other people, too. In fact, a lot of libraries have to create quiet rooms.

In an interview for PBS NewsHour, Hayden said: “Why should you invest in a library, especially a library building, in the time of the digital age? What we found is a library’s place is even more important. There is a hunger in this digital age to hear authors together, to participate in programs, to just be in a place, a community space.”

The main reading room of the Library of Congress, Photo by Carol M. Highsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I love that what we are hearing from the Librarian in Chief is the same thing we are hearing from our local librarians. It’s resonating throughout the entire field: libraries make space for all of us, and for whatever we need. They bring us together. They convene, and connect, our community. Libraries provide us with limitless opportunities.

Just think, for a quick second or deeply for days, about all the firsts–and seconds and thirds–our library can help you discover and accomplish. Free, always, for each and every one of us.

Originally published on October 1, 2016 at

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