WASHINGTON -- Under Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the world's largest library is on its way to becoming another one of Washington's acclaimed museums.
A splashy exhibition on baseball opened there just as Washington was hosting Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, and last May, the library added a major collection of comic books, including early images of Mickey Mouse, to its permanent holdings, which number 170 million.
Two and a half years into her 10-year term, Hayden is making good on her promise to throw open the doors of America's "palace of knowledge" and invite ordinary citizens to join scholars in exploring its treasures. The former head of Baltimore's public library system and an Obama nominee, Hayden is focused on making the Library of Congress a cultural destination -- a museum of American letters that will inspire, educate and, yes, even entertain.
"People don't know that the Library of Congress has something for them," said Hayden, who became the 14th librarian of Congress in 2016. "We built a palace to knowledge and we wanted it to rival any palace in any European city. (But) you have to let people come in and ... be inspired. That's what it was designed for."
Central to Hayden's goals is a $60 million makeover of the library's Thomas Jefferson Building, the historic 1897 architectural wonder known for its Great Hall, which is open to the public, and the Main Reading Room, the hushed temple where scholars work. Hayden unveiled the first glimpses of the concept -- with its additional exhibition space, youth center and innovative access to the Main Reading Room -- on Wednesday at her annual appearance before the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which oversees the library.
Some critics have expressed concerns that if the plan is approved, the library's intellectual focus will be sacrificed to an avalanche of exhibitions and the increased foot traffic that would result. In an age when facts seem to be up for grabs and information flows quickly but often with little authority, they say, the library's academic mission is more critical than ever.