A year ago this week, Carla Hayden made history. She was the first woman and African American to become the Librarian of Congress.
“And I have to tell you it’s been wonderful,” she said to ‘Off Script’ anchor Bruce Johnson. Previously, she was in charge of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system up the interstate in Baltimore.
Even though she’s blazing a trail for librarians, women, and African Americans to come, she’s using this chapter of her career to focus on all Americans.
The library is the go-to spot for lawmakers doing research, but the facility isn’t meant for just them. Hayden wants the American people to know that it is your library.
She calls it the best kept secret in Washington, but she doesn’t want it to stay that way.
“We want to be one of the top five tourist destinations [in Washington],” Hayden said.
The Library of Congress gets nearly 2 million visitors a year. She’s hoping to get even more feet through the doors.
If you’ve never been, there’s no shortage of exhibits and collections to check out.
PHOTOS: Inside the Library of Congress--DC's 'best kept secret'
The first thing you should see
Hayden is still surprised by just how much is in the Library of Congress collection. It’s the world’s largest library. There are more than 164 million items. The bookshelves stretch for a total of 838 miles.
But without hesitation, Hayden said your first stop should be the Jefferson Building.
“That’s the jewel. It’s been called the most beautiful building in Washington, D.C.,” Hayden said, adding that it was also the first in the city to have electricity.
“You would see this magnificent temple to learning and knowledge, and then you would see Thomas Jefferson’s original library that he sold to the United States.”
Jefferson’s collection helped restart the library’s collection in 1815 after British troops burned the Capitol, which housed the library. Jefferson’s personal library contained 6,487 books. The U.S. bought it for $23,950.
Collections that amaze her the most
Inside the library, history isn’t just something you read in a book. Some of America’s biggest moments—and trying times—come alive inside the building.
“To see Rosa Parks’ handwritten notes about her arrest. To really look at Abraham Lincoln’s life mask, to be able to see Teddy Roosevelt’s diary and those types of things are touching history.”
Hayden said “touching history” is the part of her job that amazes her the most.
“When you see the draft of the Declaration of Independence that the original draft had a section on slavery and it was taken out because they knew they couldn’t pass it if they kept slavery in,” Hayden said.
The Library of Congress also houses Lincoln’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation and the first known photo of Harriet Tubman, which will be shared with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Hayden encouraged young people—especially African American girls—to step inside the library and be inspired by the past.
“I would show any young person Rosa Parks’ description of how she felt in that cell in her own handwriting in pencil, on notepaper,” Hayden said. “I hope that they could realize that it takes bravery, and there are so many figures in history that are just like them.”
Why locals should step inside (again)
The Library of Congress has new reasons for locals head there all year long, Hayden said.
“We want people to come to the free concerts and the film showings—with free popcorn,” she added.
The Library of Congress has locations all over the world. The main building in Downtown D.C. is located on Capitol Hill, just behind the Capitol and south of the Supreme Court.