During his tenure as President George W. Bush’s relentlessly overzealous first-term Attorney General, John Ashcroft once engaged in a contentious public exchange with Enoch Pratt Free Library CEO Carla Hayden, at the time also president of the American Library Association. Their overtly polite, if covertly testy, 2003 back-and-forth concerned a provision of 2001’s post-9/11 Patriot Act — a section that gave the FBI unfettered access to citizens’ records, including the borrowing habits of library patrons. When Ashcroft’s attempts to mollify Hayden’s objections to what amounts to government-sanctioned spying failed, she led a coalition that petitioned Congress to pass legislation annulling the act’s snooping component, an effort that ultimately fizzled. The provision remains in effect — and remains just as controversial — today. 

Removed from the national — forgive the phrase — fishbowl, Hayden has applied her formidable energy to transforming the Pratt during her 18 years as its director: overseeing a desperately needed expansion of the Central Branch by adding an expansive annex; shepherding the opening of Highlandtown’s impressive Southeast Anchor; outfitting virtually every branch with free Internet access; and, earlier this year, rolling out a program allowing patrons to borrow e-readers pre-loaded with 22 popular titles. Throughout, she has maintained the mantra “equity of access.”

Born in Tallahassee and raised in Chicago, Carla Hayden earned her undergraduate degree from Roosevelt University in 1973, moving on to obtain both a master’s and a PhD in library sciences from the University of Chicago in 1977 and 1987, respectively. She joined the Chicago Public Library in 1973, working there until 1983, when she accepted a post at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, followed by a stint as an educator at the University of Pittsburgh from 1987 to 1991. Returning to the Chicago Public Library, she served as its first deputy commissioner and chief librarian, until the Pratt recruited her as its CEO in 1993.

Now 59, Hayden lives in Homeland in a house awash in books.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.      

Life gets better.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

When I decided to go into the librarianship profession. I proceeded to get a masters in Library Science and then a PhD.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

From John H. Johnson, CEO of Johnson Publishing: “Sometimes you have to move to get better.” And that’s why I moved to Baltimore.

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?

A hairstylist told me to go blond. I did not follow her advice.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) Time does heal all wounds.

2) Living well is the best revenge.

3) Slow and steady wins the race.

What is the best moment of the day?

Each day when I see people from all walks of life lined up outside the library who are eager to enter use all of its services. 

What is on your bedside table?

Countless books. Not only on my bedside table but also in baskets and on other nearby tables. It’s a garden of books.

What is your favorite local charity?

The Pratt Library, of course, and Mercy Medical Center.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Try not to be discouraged or fear success.

Why are you successful?

I had a lot of help along the way from great people like my mother and wonderful mentors in the profession and in the community (from Chicago to Baltimore).

Which three books–one that you read as a child, one while in college or as a young adult, one recently–have most impressed upon you the power of the written word? Why have these three books affected you so strongly?

Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli.  As a child, the beautiful pictures captivated me. It’s the story of a young black girl with pigtails who was a Brownie. I related to her and strived as a child to be like her. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. It was about young African-American teens trying to succeed in a harsh world. It was a well-written and strong story that did not stereotype minorities. It impressed upon me the power of literature. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It is so inspiring, because he was extraordinary but very ordinary.

What is the most current pressing issue confronting major metropolitan public libraries (in general) and the Pratt (in particular)? How do we solve this problem?

Budget constraints facing all public libraries. This is happening at a time when more people are using libraries and are in need of the free services libraries offer. At the Pratt Library, for example, our visitors have skyrocketed in the past several years to nearly two million annually. That is more than all the people who attend all the home Ravens games in a season. We have to impress upon policymakers the importance of libraries and to provide more evidence of the impact of libraries in people’s lives (such as in early literacy and economic development).

Share with us your favorite local escape spot (cafe, coffee shop, park, museum, Pratt nook, wherever) to relax and/or read. What makes this place so special? 

Bookstores, especially the Ivy Bookshop. It’s a treasure chest of ideas and stories. As Walt Disney said, “There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”