President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated the longtime director of Baltimore's public library system to lead the Library of Congress, a venerable institution that has faced criticism in recent years for a perceived reluctance to embrace technology.
Carla Hayden, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library since 1993, would become the first woman and the first African-American to oversee the 214-year-old library, home to the Gettysburg Address, a Gutenberg Bible and the world's largest collection of comic books.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hayden would confront the monumental challenge of modernizing a library that some critics say has failed to keep pace with basic improvements in technology, let alone more daunting tasks, such as digitizing its massive collection.
The Library of Congress, which serves lawmakers, federal agencies and the public, has a collection of more than 162 million items, and adds12,000 more a day.
"People think of the Library of Congress as the library of America, but you shouldn't have to come to D.C. to see it," said Daniel Schuman, a former Library of Congress employee who is now policy director of the tech advocacy group Demand Progress. "It wasn't just that they weren't leaning forward; it was that they were all the way back on their heels."
In announcing his choice, Obama pointed to Hayden's efforts in Baltimore to modernize the 22-branch Enoch Pratt system, itself a historic institution. She boosted the number of computers available to patrons, expanded Wi-Fi and was on the cutting edge of the e-reader trend — building the library's electronic collection and lending readers as well as the content on them.
Obama also noted Hayden's decision to keep the library open during the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray last year. He described the system as a "beacon for the community."
Obama nominated the Cross Keys woman to a 10-year term that could be renewed by future presidents. She would succeed James H. Billington, a Reagan appointee who retired last fall after 28 years in the job, and would be the 14th librarian of Congress.
Historian Taylor Branch, who relied on both the Pratt and the Library of Congress while researching his trilogy on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights Movement, said Hayden has "managed to make the library a destination in the digital age."
"I think that she has rebuilt the competence and the reputation of the Pratt library through a very difficult period in Baltimore," he added.
Hayden, a former president of the American Library Association, captured national attention in 2003 for a public spat with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft over the Patriot Act. Hayden objected to a provision that allowed federal authorities to look at library borrowing records to identify potential terrorists.
Ashcroft said federal agents were not peering through library records. He mocked the library association in a speech, suggesting it had joined with other Bush administration critics to peddle "baseless hysteria" about how authorities were relying on the law's provision.
Hayden fired back with a statement criticizing Ashcroft for being "openly contemptuous of those who seek to defend our Constitution."
Republican reaction to Hayden was muted Wednesday. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which will consider the nomination, mentioned the importance of integrating new technology at the library. But he offered no indication about whether he believes Hayden is the right candidate for the job.
"I congratulate Dr. Hayden on her nomination and look forward to getting to know her and gaining a clear understanding of her vision for moving the library forward into the next decade," Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said in a statement.
The White House declined a request to interview Hayden, which is standard practice for nominees facing confirmation. But the nominee spoke extensively in a video released by the White House on Wednesday.
"The thing that will really keep me going throughout the rest of my career is the fact that in Baltimore the library mattered to people's lives," she said in the video.
Hayden, a 63-year-old Florida native who has also served as chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library, is overseeing the first major renovation of Baltimore's 83-year-old central library — an undertaking that she has said will help push the grand limestone-and-marble building on Cathedral Street into the digital age.
Hayden laid out her vision for the Pratt during an extensive interview last spring with The Baltimore Sun.
"To be part of making sure the Pratt makes it in a relevant way to the next century, in preparing for the future, that's what's exciting," Hayden said at the time. "We're planning for a future you can't really see at times."
The $114 million renovation at the central library began last year and will take another three years to complete.
Hayden has overseen another $40 million in renovations to neighborhood branches, including the Canton branch, which reopened this month. She guided the $11 million annex at the Pratt's central library that opened in 2003 to house some of the oldest and rarest materials, including a book by the African-American poet Phillis Wheatley published in 1773 and the Benjamin Banneker Almanac from 1796.
Much of the renovation to the main library is aimed at updating the infrastructure to accommodate modern technology and broadband service, which Hayden said is essential to meet the demand of a public that uses smartphones to access information on Wi-Fi.
A new wing for young adults will include a room for teens to build video games and experiment with robotics. Under Hayden's stewardship, the Pratt ran a live feed of Nelson Mandela's funeral in 2013 and aired soccer matches.
Hayden manages 500 employees and a $40 million budget. The Library of Congress has more than 3,000 employees and a budget of $618 million.
The position comes with a base salary of $183,300.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has known Hayden for decades, praised her approach to working with communities — many of which are passionate about their branches.
"She takes the pulse, she gauges the community and she moves ahead — and don't get in her way," Clarke said. "She never breaks her politeness and calm. Sometimes you wonder how she did it. She just pushed through, everybody said, 'What a nice lady.' She's a perfect candidate."
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardle contributed to this article.
Carla D. Hayden
Title: CEO, Enoch Pratt Free Library
Education: Roosevelt University; master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago
Former: Chief librarian, Chicago Public Library, 1991-1993; president, American Library Association, 2003-2004.