Access Agenda for All Libraries

photo of Carla Hayden2006 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture

By Carla Hayden

Good morning. It is truly an honor to be asked to deliver the Jean Coleman Lecture this year when we are celebrating thirty-five years of OLOS. I was truly humbled by my inclusion in such a distinguished group of recipients and speakers, most recently Sanford Berman, Richard Chabran, and the late Thelma Tate, whose son Alaric is here with us today.

In fact, to tell the truth I was somewhat intimidated when I thought about the wonderful woman whom the lecture is dedicated to and whom many of you knew, as we heard so touchingly in the remembrances. Dr. Coleman’s legacy of commitment to empower others, within and without the profession. Virginia Matthews, who we honor today and is cited as an “icon” in yesterday’s Cognotes, has also been a trailblazer and inspiration to many of us. Thank you for including me in this celebration of achievement and dedication.

I want to start with a heartfelt thank you to all of you for being here this morning. You did not have to get up early at conference to attend this event, one that although we have great jazz and food, is somewhat serious and in conflict with the Diversion’s service opportunity tour and Patriot Act “John Doe” program going on at the same time. So, I thank you for making this part of your conference agenda and for what you do everyday by caring for someone other than yourselves.

As a result, I also realize I might be preaching to the choir as I talk with you this morning. I know many of you are here today because you care and are committed to helping all communities and people move forward and live their best lives.  Some of you have been advocates for equity in library services for many years; some of you may serve on library boards and many of you have also been active in your own communities on a number of quality of life issues; some of you have worked in a number of different types of libraries in your career and some of you are just starting.

Yet by your attendance here today, I would venture to say that most of you strongly believe in what libraries can do for people, especially those with the most need. You believe libraries can help build communities and even change lives.  And so even if this is a pretty strong choir, I have heard that the best choirs still need to rehearse and learn a few new songs.

It is especially fitting that this year’s lecture is taking place in a city that has come to symbolize inequities in services and responses for people who have been traditionally underserved in so many ways.  Although our own profession has freely used the term traditional users and services and recognized the underserved, the usage also indicates the fact that far too many people in this country, the poor, illiterate, minorities, rural were not considered traditional users and were probably unseen and therefore underserved.

Our own library history helps tell us why as we look at   movements such as services to immigrants, the introduction of popular fiction and foreign languages into collections, serving children and teenagers. These efforts and others  combined with an overriding impulse to improve mankind and a perceived need to socialize and educate people to form an informed electorate. 

When we review our past we must face hard realities such as what the impact of being in a feminized profession has on our policy effectiveness and what the perceptions about women, some that are still in effect, have had on the nature of our institutions. (For more on that aspect, I’d highly recommend Dee Garrison’s “Apostles of Culture: The Public Librarian and American Society, 1876-1920.”)

A lot of progress has been made, nationally in society and within our profession, to eradicate inequities yet there is still much more to do.  As I recently heard the noted historian Dr. John Hope Franklin point out, we must not be satisfied with the progress of individuals, like the first this or that, but work to ensure that everyone has opportunity, and everyone is treated fairly and like human beings. I would propose that for our profession that means having an access agenda.

Why access? Access is opportunity, the opportunity to obtain the necessary services that will allow a person to pursue whatever they may need to advance, imagine, engage, and enjoy. Access is more than just a technological concept, as some people might narrowly define it. If literacy is the highway to success, as our keynote speaker at last year’s Annual Conference in Chicago, Senator Barack Obama noted, then libraries are a vehicle of access for everyone to use.  We know that libraries offer services that include talented and dedicated staff members and places to connect in everyway possible.

We also know that the global economic and social environment is changing rapidly and technology has impacted almost every facet of our lives, whether we like it or not.  Despite gains in many areas, many people in this nation are still being left behind and will continue to in the technologically advanced future. We know that more and more information is only being published online, and many federal, state, and local governments are turning to “e-government” initiatives where all government business will be conducted online, including any form you may need to interact with them as well.

We also know that vital access to information and technology needed to meet the challenges faced by minorities, rural, and native populations is often limited to public facilities. In addressing the technological access divide we must not only look at the numbers of people online, which have increased for the underserved population, we must look at where they get access. This is vitally important when you consider just a few examples of the everyday impact of technology access.

I recently observed a very well dressed lady go to the front of a long line in the Post Office to deposit her computer generated preprinted mailing slipped package and one person saying, “Some people are really fortunate.”  When someone tried to explain she did it on line, other people said, “she went to the front of the line,” or “is there another line” with a lot of confusion in line but no connection in people’s minds to online.

We see the impact in commercial arena, with the airline boarding passes. I remember getting to the airport 2 hours early for a Southwest flight and was surprised to find all of the A tickets taken; that’s when I found out about online and twenty-four hours ahead (though you still need to get there early to stand in the A line!)

Access is a moving target that bounces into many arenas, from technology to employment development. The Futurist predicts that 80% of the jobs in 20 years haven’t even been thought of yet but will definitely be technology related. In this world, many job categories like secretary or assistant, will not exist. The future will belong to those who can prepare for and master new information technology literacy experiences.

We must put all aspects of access into context and think about what this means in terms of library policy. We know about the dangers of an information apartheid or brown outs in communities with the new technologies. We know that rural areas need just as much attention as urban ones and that tribal communities are often the poorest of all. We talk about library staff members being the ultimate search engines or navigators in a sea of information but with Google and publishing are roles as mediators are evolving and becoming more important for challenged communities.

We must look at the big picture of access, not just technology and immediate challenges. We can not be afraid to think about the far future or to take the view from the balcony with the door open to a time when libraries will   be very different, which many of us may not be comfortable with. So how can we help shape their development and make sure the values of access continue in a new age.

When thinking about an access agenda I thought about listing a long shopping list of what’s important to look at now, such as copyright and net neutrality or what prior Coleman lecturers have outlined, such as the Poor people’s agenda.  Fortunately we already have a lot of plans, checklists, guides, models, toolkits and specifics for various populations.  Equity of Access was the theme of my ALA presidency. There was a brochure produced (available online as well) that addresses numerous issues and items to check in order to ensure that people with varying needs can use our resources effectively. OLOS produced a very helpful book, From Outreach to Equity: Innovative Models of Library Policy and Practice (ALA Editions), that provides clear roadmaps to equity in access. And there is a brand new OLOS toolkit for rural populations available at this conference.

After much reflection, I decided to broaden the subject to beyond a particular, program, procedure or plan (the abstract for this lecture will change!) The access agenda I would like you to consider is more of a clarion call to action. There is really only one big item on this access agenda: be involved personally and professionally with a clear sense that what you are doing matters to generations yet unborn.

The access agenda for today is to realize that helping families, students now can  change the future for their children, grandchildren and great children as well as for our society and communities.

We have to step up and be even more efficient and effective; not just talk or a cause a lot of commotion and emotion without action and effective activity. Your professional involvement keeps you informed about what’s important now, but renewing and gaining perspective about the real mission and how what we do effects the opportunities for others is the agenda needed to shape a desired future, with the goals and objectives to be filled in as circumstances and situations dictate.

We must always remember that we have the power to help change lives and empower people. We can never be adequately compensated for the work that we do, which is really helping people get through life, because in a sense this is missionary work of a sort. To paraphrase the theologian Swinoll, the most significant things in life are done by people who are often “unknown, unseen, unappreciated, and unapplauded.” He is referring to the people, like many of you, who are quietly going about the business of helping others with no thought of fame or reward beyond the satisfaction of knowing you are trying to make a difference in people’s lives.

We are in a unique position; despite our stereotypes and perceptions or maybe because of them, we have credibility, the confidence of the public who know we are not in it for the money. Yes, we are working on adequate compensation but not only for our immediate personal needs but to attract and retain talent and show external how we are valued.

We cannot deny the impact of being in a feminized profession but we can’t be immobilized by it or let it stop us from moving forward.

We must look for potential barriers to access especially with policies in every realm. To be effective, we should be involved in access policies but not all politics in general. As individuals and in certain groups, we need to be concerned about all human indignities but when we tackle the access agenda for library services we need to concentrate our efforts and thought and not lose sight of our big picture; empowering others with the tools they need to realize their full potential as human beings.

The Patriot Act is recent example of what a difference we can make in policy. When the Attorney General and Congress respond and listen, though not in ways we would like, you know we have had an impact on public policy.  We helped bring the privacy issues surrounding that act to the general public and the vigorous debates included library staff, much to the surprise of many.

We must realize that all public policy that effects access needs our perception. We can and should inform federal policy, with efforts like those of ALA’s Washington Office but also on local levels as well. We have credibility with legislators and their staffs because we are on the front line and can readily observe how library services affect lives in everyday ways. And our observations are applicable in varying degrees to library services in all settings. When thinking of access we must not let divisions based on type of library or user limit our opportunities and activities. Access issues touch every type of library in one way or another.

A legislator once told us that the best thing we can do when we advocate is to tell the story, and we certainly have stories to tell. I had the good fortune to receive a letter from a young man right around the time of the Columbine High School tragedy, in April 1999. It arrived in my office as I was preparing for a city council budget hearing that I must admit I was not looking forward to. I was not looking forward to hearing one councilperson ask why we still needed libraries when everyone had computers or another ask why have services for people who couldn’t read well anyway. (I work in a city with a 38% adult illiteracy rate and 50% high school drop out rate and a very serious drug addition problem.)

When I opened the handwritten note on lined paper, not always a good sign in administration, this is what appeared:

Dear Ms. Carla Hayden,

Good Afternoon! I don’t mean to disturb you from your busy work, but I just have to mention that this library is a very pleasant one to be in, and I’m glad that it is here. The atmosphere of the library is peaceful, quiet and calming. The library is always kept clean, too. When I have trouble at home (which I always do), I come here to get rid of my anger and worries which always turn into happiness. It’s almost as if this library is a second home to me. The majority of the librarians have a positive attitude, and always have a smile on their faces. I am glad this place has been established, and has brought joy to many people whom have association with the people of this library. I hope this library will make it around to the next century to come, and that maybe someday, I could find work in this library and be a blessing to someone else, as it has been a blessing towards me.


John A. Cherry (age 16)
11th grade (Poly)

As you can imagine I took that letter to the budget hearing and we used it as the preface for our next strategic plan. John is now serving in the Marines in the Middle East.

We represent people like John who have needs and we must prepare, perform, and persevere. We need to review the words of Patricia Schuman on advocacy, Dr. E.J. Josey on diversity, examine the efforts of people like Dr. Trejo, Jean Coleman, Augusta Baker, and A.P. Marshall. We should look at the history of OLOS, and also the caucuses, roundtables, and ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Washington Office and staunchly support the newest Office of Diversity. 

This is on our watch. What will history say about us; what will they say we said and did during our time. We need an access agenda not just for now but the future.

We need to work to remove the labels of traditional, underserved, and even outreach. We can not continue to treat services to the previously underserved as outreach or something out of the mainstream, out there, or over there. These services, policies and practices must be integrated and mainstreamed. We need to look forward to a new tradition of serving that doesn’t need definitions that include underserved or nontraditional.

I might also add in a very inside way that we can begin the process by treating those services that way within our own association, with time, talent, and resources that reflect its importance.

We can also the recognize the power of one, that every one of us has potential also to move an access agenda forward in whatever setting or position we are in.   When Nelson Mandela gave his inaugural speech after the end of apartheid in South Africa, he quoted Marianne Williamson and I’ll paraphrase:

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It is not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” 

Remember in our power to empower others we are also a threat to some.  I’m not vain enough to think that we are the only ones who see the power in empowering others. There are those who do not want others in society who they do not value to succeed, get ahead or even catch up. When libraries are first on chopping blocks when hours are cut or libraries closed, access is denied. When discussions revolve around the “fact” that everyone has computers at home so why do we need libraries, the point is being made for access denied. There are some people, some in power, who believe the pie is finite and do not, like some of us, believe in the children’s tale Stone Soup, that shows that giving means more for everyone not less for some.

We should want to be part of a continuum of caring, a part of the circle of life. We need to join forces with not only like-minded people but to work to include others who need help understanding that every person has value and potential.

We must chart our own course and not be reactionary.

We have to challenge others to come up to our standards and not try to avoid conflict, which can be uncomfortable for some. We can quietly go about the business of helping others but be very noisy about their needs.

And so even though this gathering is ending, let’s leave with a renewed commitment to sing louder and stronger, with a few new stanzas in unison and harmony.  Thank you for making the dreams of opportunity of so many people from so many backgrounds your dreams.

   About Carla Hayden

Dr. Carla D. Hayden is executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Prior to her work there, Hayden was the first deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library, an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and library services coordinator at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  A graduate of Roosevelt University, Hayden earned her MA and Ph.D. degrees from the Graduate Library School of the University of Chicago.

Dr. Hayden is an active member of the American Library Association (ALA) and served as ALA president 2003 to 2004. She also served as chair of ALA's Committee on Accreditation and Spectrum Initiative to recruit minorities to librarianship.  She is currently a member of the Boards of the Maryland African American Museum Corporation, Baltimore City Historical Society, Baltimore Reads, Goucher College,  Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute and Library,  Mercy Hospital Advisory Board for the Women’s Center, PALINET, Sinai Hospital, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences.

Dr. Hayden was named one of the Women of the Year by Ms. Magazine (2003) and Librarian of the Year by Library Journal (1995). She was also named as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women from Warfield’s Business Record (1996) and The Daily Record (2003). She is the recipient of the Torch Bearer Award from the Coalition of 100 Black Women (1996), the Andrew White Medal from Loyola College (1997), the President’s Medal from the Johns Hopkins University (1998), the Pro Urbe Award from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland (2004), the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award from the Greater Baltimore Urban League (2004), the YWCA Leader Award from the YWCA, Baltimore (2004), and the Barnard College Medal of Distinction (2005).  She is listed in the publications Who’s Who in America, American Education, and Among African Americans. She has also received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from University of Baltimore (2000) and Morgan State University (2001).