Librarians of Congress

“Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.”

After last week’s post analyzing the reel librarians featured in All the President’s Men (1976), including two library clerks who worked at the Library of Congress, I was inspired to dig into the history of our own Librarians of Congress.

What is the Library of Congress, and when was it established?

Before we even get into the Librarians of Congress, first we need to know what the Library of Congress actually is. The Library of Congress — referred to by librarians as either “LOC” or “LC” for short — is a research library that was established primarily to serve the United States Congress. It is considered the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, as well as the largest library in the world. It is also considered the de facto national library of the United States, but that took quite a long time to develop!

"LOC Main Reading Room Highsmith" by Carol M. Highsmith Archive collection at the Library of Congress is in the public domain
“LOC Main Reading Room Highsmith” by Carol M. Highsmith Archive collection at the Library of Congress is in the public domain


  • James Madison is credited with the initial idea of a congressional library


  • President John Adams signed an act of Congress providing for the transfer of the seat of government from Philadelphia to the new capital city of Washington
  • Part of that legislation appropriated funds for a collection of books for the expressed use of Congress
  • The first “Library of Congress” collection consisted of 740 books and 3 maps, all bought from London


  • The Library of Congress had a collection of 3,000 volumes
  • The War of 1812 led to the burning of the capitol building, and the library’s original collection was destroyed by fire.


  • Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library of over 6,500 volumes to Congress, to help rebuild the Library of Congress.


  • New headquarters were established in the building we now refer to as the “Thomas Jefferson Building” and its iconic circular “Reading Room”
  • With over 840,000 volumes, the Library of Congress became known as the largest library in the United States
  • Much of this expansion of its holdings and influence is thanks to then-Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, whose ultimate goal was to turn the Library of Congress into a de facto national library. His progressive policies, from 1865-1897, included:
    • collecting Americana and American literature
    • regulating copyright registration and putting that back under the purview of the Library of Congress
    • acquiring the Smithsonian libraries
    • restoring the Library’s international book exchange

Was the “Librarian of Congress” position established at the same time as the Library of Congress itself?

No, it wasn’t until 1802 — two years after the Library of Congress was officially established under President John Adams — that President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill that provided the basic structure for the position. This bill allowed the president to appoint an “overseer” of the Library of Congress and established a Joint Committee in Congress to help regulate the Library (basically, the means to keep funding it!).

This structure is still largely in place today, with the President appointing a nominee for Librarian of Congress. It was not until 1897, however, that this presidential nomination required Senate approval (“advice and consent”). This requirement elevated the profile and importance of the position.

There were also no term limits originally for the “overseer” — AKA the “Librarian of Congress” — essentially making the position a lifetime appointment. It wasn’t until 2015 that President Barack Obama signed into law the “Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015,” which put a 10-year term limit on the position with an option for reappointment.

How many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians?

By the term “librarian,” I am referring to the modern definition of a librarian as an information professional with a degree in Library Science or related field (e.g. Information Science).

The answer of how many Librarians of Congress have actually been librarians is more complicated than I expected. Including the current one and dating back to 1802, there have only been 14 official Librarians of Congress in total. There was also an Acting Librarian of Congress, who served inbetween the 13th and 14th appointees, from 2015-2016.

Librarians of Congress…Out of 14 official Librarians of Congress, 1802-2017Including the Acting Librarian of Congress, 2015-2016
… with advanced education and/or degrees1415
… with library science degrees23
… with library experience prior to working at the Library of Congress 34 
… who were white males1313
… who were/are female (reflecting 75-80% of the librarian workforce in the U.S.)11
… who are librarians of color12

One caveat: Library science as a science and educational degree in the United States was not established until 1887, the year that Melvil Dewey founded the world’s first library school at Columbia College, now Columbia University, in New York (after first proposing the idea in 1883). It is for this reason that Dewey is often referred to in the U.S. as the “Father of Modern Librarianship.” 1889 marked the year of the first graduating class from Columbia.

So if we take the year 1889 as the starting point for the possibility of having “actual librarians” and compare that with the historical list of Librarians of Congress, that would reduce the list of possibles to 8 (or 9, if you count the Acting Librarian of Congress from 2015-2016). And then counting from that list those who have been actual librarians, it brings the percentage up to 25% (2 of 8), or 33% (3 of 9) if you count the Acting Librarian. That’s still a very low percentage of Librarians of Congress being professionally trained and educated librarians.

Who is the current Librarian of Congress?

Carla Hayden is our current and 14th Librarian of Congress, becoming the first woman and the first African American to lead our national library. She received her master’s and doctorate degrees in Library Science from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School. I believe that also makes her the first Librarian of Congress to have earned a doctorate in library science!

"Carla Hayden" by the Library of Congress is in the public domain
“Carla Hayden” by the Library of Congress is in the public domain

Her librarian experience is deep and varied:

  • 1973-1982:  Children’s librarian and then young adult services coordinator at Chicago Public Library
  • 1982-1987:  Library services coordinator for Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry
  • 1987-1991:  Assistant Professor of Library Science at the University of Pittsburgh
  • 1991 to 1993:  Deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library
  • 1993-2016:  Director at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland
    • 2003-2004:  President of the American Library Association (ALA)

I earned my own library science degree in 2003, just a few weeks before Carla Hayden became ALA President. Her theme during her ALA Presidency was “Equity of Access,” and she has continued to be an outspoken voice for librarian advocacy. When she was named Ms. Magazine‘s 2003 Woman of the Year, she stated in her interview:

Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted, and they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.

In a subsequent article in Ms. Magazine in 2016, Hayden stated:

(Librarians) are activists, engaged in the social work aspect of librarianship. Now we are fighters for freedom.

Carla Hayden is also active on Twitter, via the Library of Congress Twitter account!

Who were the previous Librarians of Congress?

All of the previous Librarians of Congress have in common a couple of visual traits:  white and male. They were all also highly educated. Here’s a look at the Previous Librarians of Congress page from the Library of Congress website:

Previous Librarians of Congress, 1802-2015
Previous Librarians of Congress, 1802-2015

I have compiled a list below of the previous Librarians of Congress, which includes the time period in which they served in that role, their previous professions, and items of note during their tenure.

 1. John J. Beckley (1802–1807)

  • Former American political campaign manager
  • Served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives until his death in 1807
  • Oversaw the creation of the first “Library of Congress” collection, consisting of 740 books and 3 maps

2. Patrick Magruder (1807–1815)

  • Lawyer
  • Also served concurrently as Librarian of Congress and as Clerk of the House of Representatives
  • After the War of 1812 and the destruction of the Library’s collection, he resigned after an investigation by Congress into the destruction of the Library and the use of Library funds

3. George Watterston (1815–1829)

  • Former lawyer and newspaper editor
  • The first full-time Librarian of Congress (the position was separated from the Clerk of the House of Representatives in 1815) — and therefore sometimes referred to as the first true “Librarian of Congress”
  • Oversaw the restoration of the Library’s collection and the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal library of books
  • Published the Library’s first public catalog of its holdings — and was criticized by Congress for doing so, due to its expense!
  • Strong advocate for expansion of the Library and lobbied successfully for additional staff, naming an Assistant Librarian in 1828
  • Opposed the election of President Andrew Jackson and was subsequently replaced

4. John Silva Meehan (1829–1861)

  • Printer and publisher
  • During his tenure, several of the Library’s functions were transferred to other government agencies, thus weakening the role and purpose of the Library of Congress (public document distribution activities to the Department of the Interior; international book exchange program to the Department of State; depository of copyrighted books to the Patent Office)
  • During his entire tenure, the chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library — not the Librarian of Congress! — selected the books for the Library’s collection
  • Served under 9 U.S. Presidents

5. John Gould Stephenson (1861–1864)

  • Physician and soldier
  • During his tenure, also served as physician for the Union Army during the Civil War

6. Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864–1897)

  • Journalist and publisher
  • Served as Assistant Librarian to Stephenson
  • Progressive leadership that transformed the Library of Congress into a national institution that also served the American public
  • Oversaw the building of a new home for the collection, creating a physical structure for the Library of Congress, separate from the Capitol building
  • Retired to become Chief Assistant Librarian under the next two Librarians of Congress, a position he held until his death in 1908

7. John Russell Young (1897–1899)

  • Journalist, author, and diplomat
  • Oversaw the physical move of the collection from the Capitol building to the new Library of Congress building
  • Served only two years, until his death in 1899

8. Herbert Putnam (1899–1939)

  • Former lawyer
  • Although he did not have a degree in library science (it was still a new degree), he was the first Librarian of Congress to have prior library experience, having served as Librarian of the Minneapolis Athenaeum (1884-87), the Minneapolis Public Library (1887-91), and the Boston Public Library (1895-99)
  • Longest-serving Librarian of Congress
  • Developed the Library of Congress Classification system, still in use today by the Library of Congress and academic libraries worldwide
  • Urged the creation of a second Library of Congress building; the John Adams Building opened in 1939
  • Upon his retirement, Putnam was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

9. Archibald MacLeish (1939–1944)

  • Former lawyer but best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and writer
  • Controversial appointment, which included a letter writing campaign by the American Library Association (ALA) against MacLeish’s nomination. Part of the reason the ALA opposed the appointment? The fact that he had not attended a professional school of library science and had no library experience!
  • Developed policies, procedures, and the first explicit statements of the institution’s goals and collection development criteria
  • Created a new program of resident fellowships for young scholars and the Fellows of the Library of Congress, a group of prominent writers and poets

10. Luther H. Evans (1945–1953)

  • Political scientist
  • Served under MacLeish as head of the Legislative Reference Service and later Chief Assistant Librarian of Congress
  • One of the few government officials to openly resist McCarthyism
  • Resigned from the Library to accept a position as UNESCO’s third Director General, the only American to hold this post

11. Lawrence Quincy Mumford (1954–1974)

  • Bachelor of Library Science degree at the School of Library Science, Columbia University
  • Served as librarian at New York Public Library (NYPL) and director of the Cleveland Public Library system
  • Married a librarian (!), Permelia Catherine Stevens, a children’s librarian for the NYPL system
  • Considered to be the first professionally trained and educated librarian to be appointed Librarian of Congress!
  • Oversaw the establishment of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for substantial and lasting contributions to literature for children
  • Implemented the construction of the James Madison Memorial Building (finished in 1980), which became the third Library of Congress building
  • Ushered the Library of Congress into the computer age, including establishing the Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC) system, which is still in use today by library catalogers worldwide
  • Note:  It was during Mumford’s tenure that Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein sought help from Library of Congress clerks while beginning their investigation into the Watergate scandal.

12. Daniel J. Boorstin (1975–1987)

  • Rhodes Scholar, lawyer, and historian
  • Former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology (today known as the National Museum of American History)
  • His nomination was also controversial, with the ALA opposing his nomination because “however distinguished [his background] may be, [it] does not include demonstrated leadership and administrative qualities which constitute basic and essential characteristics necessary in the Librarian of Congress.”
  • The first Librarian of Congress to take the oath of office at a formal ceremony in the Library itself
  • Instrumental in the creation of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress
  • Upon his retirement, was made Librarian of Congress Emeritus

13. James H. Billington (1987–2015)

  • Rhodes Scholar and academic who taught history at Princeton and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Oversaw the creation of a massive new Library of Congress online, including the American Memory site in 1990, which became The National Digital Library site in 1994
  • Reconstructed Thomas Jefferson’s original library (a majority of the volumes had been destroyed by a fire in 1851) — I was lucky to see this exhibit personally and up close in 2010!
  • Created the National Book Festival, founded in 2000 with Laura Bush, herself a former school and public librarian

David S. Mao (2015-2016, Acting)

  • Earned a master’s degree in library and information science from The Catholic University of America
  • Law librarian experience, including at a private law firm and the Georgetown University Law Library
  • Joined the Library of Congress in 2005, hired by the American Law Division in the Congressional Research Service (CRS). In 2010, he joined the Law Library of Congress as its first Deputy Law Librarian, and then became the 23rd Law Librarian of Congress in 2012. In 2015, then-Librarian of Congress James Billington appointed him to the Deputy Librarian of Congress office.
  • Under his brief tenure as Acting Librarian of Congress, he brought to the Library a copy of the 1215 Magna Carta for a historic 800th anniversary exhibition

After researching the backgrounds and tenures of the previous and current Librarians of Congress, I have come away with a profound respect — and pride, both as a librarian and as an American! — for their collective contributions. The Library of Congress today is a respected institution worldwide, and it took a lot of work and leadership to get there!

Sources used:

OLA Conference program wrap-up

The conference theme was “Tell Your Story,” and my presentation was titled “When Others Tell Our Story: Librarian Portrayals in Film.”

As I promised in last week’s post, I have some pics and info from the reel librarians program I presented at the 2016 Oregon Library Association Annual Conference. I had so much fun during my program — there was so much energy from the audience! 😀

The conference theme for this year was “Tell Your Story,” and my presentation was titled “When Others Tell Our Story: Librarian Portrayals in Film.” I have a copy of my conference materials online here at the Northwest Central website, in case you’d like to take a look. (Note: My slides look plain on the online version, since I had to take out the embedded videos due to copyright protection; I substituted film titles in place of the videos.)

Intro slide from my reel librarians program at the OLA Conference 2016
Intro slide from my reel librarians program at the OLA Conference 2016

There was a full house at the program — and then some, with people sitting on the floor in the back! I counted 75-80 attendees (some had to leave early and/or arrived later), and I was over the moon that there was so many people interested in the program! Everyone seemed super engaged and asking questions and leaning in and laughing in all the places I hoped they would! 😀

I started the program with a quick think-pair-share activity for the audience to visualize the first movie with a reel librarian they could think of, then share with a partner. Did they think of the same movie or librarian character? Did they think of different movies? I then invited a few audience members to share with everyone, and these are the resulting film titles that first came to mind:

  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • The Music Man
  • Party Girl
  • Desk Set
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Foul Play

A comment I heard more than once afterward was that attendees were thankful for a fun program and needed the opportunity to laugh — and that they wanted more fun programs at the conference in general. A friend also shared that she thought the scheduling of my program, set for right after lunch, was really good timing, as it helped energize the audience — helping prevent the “food coma” phenomenon!

And thanks to my friend Stephanie for taking pics during my program!

I only had an hour, so I had to really condense the info and film clips to include in the program. I included screenshots and clips from the following 25 films:

I enjoyed quite a few follow-up conversations with attendees, and have already received a few follow-up emails, as well — and a few more suggestions to add to my list! I was also super pleased at one woman’s comment that she felt the program had a good balance of fun and substance — awesome feedback! Others admitted to me that, at first, they couldn’t really think of any films with librarians in them but then were surprised at how many there actually are (I have almost 1,000 titles on my Master List!) and the variety that I showed through film clips. I also cracked up at the suggestion that I should develop a stand-up routine about reel librarians and take the show on the road! Hah! 😀

I also had a handout takeaway for the attendees who came to the program, available to view here. I brought 50 copies, so I totally ran out of handouts! The handout included my Reel Librarians link and email address, in case anyone comes across a film title to add to my Master List, and a copy of the trivia challenge questions, which were previously posted here on this site.

It was a super fun experience to put together and present the program! Thanks to everyone who attended the program, and for all the readers of this website and blog!

Next week, I’ll be back with another film analysis post.

Sources used:

Reader Q and A

Answering 3 questions from readers

I have collected a few reader questions, so I figured it was a good time to flex my librarian skills in answering some questions! Art imitates life, right? 🙂

Question #1:  How many movies have librarians in them?

Note: This Q&A has been updated; please see my 2017 “Revisiting reel librarian totals” post.

This is a frequently asked question from multiple readers (and colleagues!).

I don’t have a hard-and-fast answer, as there continue to be movies made each year that feature reel librarians. Therefore, I am always adding to my Master List of titles that I am also slowly working my way through and verifying. But at current count, my Master List has 795 titles (825 total minus the 30 Class V films that have no librarians in them). There are also currently 152 titles on my Foreign Films list, as well as 94 titles on my Short Films and Documentaries list.

That adds up to a running total of 1,041 reel librarian films thus far. Wow!

Question #2:  Librarians of color

Note: This Q&A has been updated; please see my 2017 “Revisiting reel librarian totals” post and in my 2021 “Reel librarians of color, 2021 update” post

This question “How many movies are there with librarians of color?” comes from reader Tracy S.

Again, no definitive answer, as I continue to work my way through my Master List, a lifelong project. But taking a look through the films I have seen thus far in my Reel Substance section, there have been at least 24 reel librarians of color (15 African Americans, 5 Latinos, 3 Asian/Asian-Americans, and 1 Native American), including the following:



Asian / Asian-American:

Native American:

Question #3:  Classical music in Spider-Man librarian cameo

Danny D. recently asked, “May I know the name of the classical music when Stan Lee was in the library in The Amazing Spider-Man where he was not aware what was happening behind him.”

Although I haven’t found anything that directly confirms the classical music that plays during Stan Lee’s cameo in 2012’s Spider-Man reboot — see my post about his cameo here — it sounds like the Vienna Waltz by Johann Strauss. It’s most definitely a waltz, in any case.

Amazing Spider-man 2012 film Stan Lee Cameo HD English” video uploaded by TheUnrealStudios is licensed under a Standard YouTube license
Johann Strauss – Vienna Waltz” video uploaded by Angelexa L is licensed under a Standard YouTube license

Do you have any reel librarian-related questions you’d like me to research? Please leave a comment below. Thanks! 🙂

Reel librarian trivia challenge

8 questions (and answers included!)

Here is a trivia challenge I included as part of poster sessions I have presented about my reel librarian research. (Scroll down to Part II to check your answers.) Enjoy!

Part I:  The questions

Question 1:

What was Mary Hatch’s fate in It’s a Wonderful Life, after George Bailey was granted the wish that he had never been born?

a. She married Sam Wainwright
b. She became a dancehall girl
c. She drowned in the lake
d. She became a spinster librarian, complete with glasses and a bun

Question 2:

What is the message on the license plate of the librarian (played by Rene Russo) in the 1989 baseball movie Major League?


Question 3:

What film features a library dance number to the song “Marian the Librarian”?

a. The Music Man
b. Good News
c. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
d. Oklahoma!

Question 4:

Which of the following films does NOT feature a librarian?

a. Party Girl
b. The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
c. The Mummy
d. The Bourne Identity

Question 5:

What actor played the advertising librarian-turned-adventurer in the film Joe Versus the Volcano?

a. Noah Wyle
b. Jason Robards
c. Tom Hanks
d. Tom Wilkinson

Question 6:

What actress, well known for playing one of Bob Newhart’s TV wives, also played a librarian in the 1962 film Rome Adventure?

a. Mary Frann
b. Suzanne Pleshette
c. Vera Miles
d. Donna Reed

Question 7:

What “Laugh In” regular played a librarian in the 1978 film Foul Play?

a. Jo Anne Worley
b. Judy Carne
c. Goldie Hawn
d. Julie Christie

Question 8:

What 1957 movie stars Katharine Hepburn as a librarian?

a. Adam’s Rib
b. Desk Set
c. The Music Man
d. The Man Who Never Was

Filmstrip clip art

Part II:  The answers

Question 1 answer:

Correct Answer: d

Extra Tidbits: Sam Wainwright, mentioned in (a), was interested in Mary; Violet (played by Gloria Grahame) did become a dancehall girl (b) in the film’s nightmarish second half; and George wasn’t there to save his brother, Harry, who did drown in the lake (c) in the second half.

Question 2 answer:

Correct Answer: b

Extra Tidbits: There is a close-up of her license plate in the film. I made up all the other choices!

Question 3 answer:

Correct Answer: a

Extra Tidbits: Good News (b) does feature a library dance number to the song “The French Lesson.” The other choices are musicals, but they do not feature librarians.

Question 4 answer:

Correct Answer: d

Extra Tidbits: The first three choices all feature librarians as major characters.

Question 5 answer:

Correct Answer: c

Extra Tidbits: Noah Wyle (a) played the librarian in The Librarian TV movies; and Jason Robards (b) played a small-town librarian in the film Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Question 6 answer:

Correct Answer: b

Extra Tidbits: As far as I know, Mary Frann (a) has never played a librarian, although she did play Bob Newhart’s wife in the 1980’s series “Newhart.” Vera Miles (c) played a librarian in The FBI Story and Donna Reed (d) played the immortal spinster librarian in the nightmarish second half of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Question 7 answer:

Correct Answer: c

Extra Tidbits: Jo Anne Worley (a) and Judy Carne (c) were both regulars on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In,” but as far as I know, have never played reel librarians.

Question 8 answer:

Correct Answer: b

Extra Tidbits: Katharine Hepburn starred in Adam’s Rib (b); The Music Man (c) features the well-known “Marian the Librarian” (played by Shirley Jones); and The Man Who Never Was also features a librarian (played by Gloria Grahame).

On the ‘Light-hearted’ side

Reviewing “Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession”

Through one of my searches through my local community college library consortium, I stumbled upon Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession, written by librarian Kathleen Low and published by McFarland in 2007. With such an intriguing title, I requested the book and have enjoyed myself immensely flipping through all the collected bits of trivia. Some of that trivia has inspired some previous (and future) posts on this blog.

It is a book to be savored and not rushed through. It is definitely NOT a book that needs to be read straight from beginning to end — it is a book meant for opening up and reading whatever catches your eye. And lots of things caught my eye, including:

  • The preface, in which the author describes when, as a young librarian, she dressed up for Halloween as the prototypical Spinster Librarian, complete with bun, high-necked blouse with cameo pin, and chunky block heels. No one at work commented on her outfit — they weren’t sure it was a costume! 😉
  • The first chapter on famous librarians, which I described in an earlier post about J. Edgar Hoover. Lots of “I didn’t know that!” shout-outs.
  • A section in the fifth chapter about librarians in politics (“If librarians were wallflowers, they’d never get elected to office”), as well as a small section of librarians in film. I was able to add a couple of short films to my Short Films & Documentaries list.
  • The essays in the ninth chapter about the “ideal librarian” — essays from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
    • One of my favorites was “The Up-to-Date Librarian” published in 1901:  “the up-to-date librarian must have, besides her knowledge of books, and her technical training, a business training; she must be, first of all, a practical business woman.”
    • One of my LEAST favorite from this section came from “Women as Librarians” by Dr. C. Norrenberg in 1901:  “The hopelessness of the learned library career for women need not trouble her, however, for the field of woman is not that of learning, but rather of culture, and that of the librarian not in the scholarly, but in the public library.” A decidedly male perspective of the times — and with his (misplaced) condescension, Norrenberg manages to insult both women AND public libraries. Hmph.
  • In the final chapter, interesting tidbits about library history, including library curses (!), library bookcase innovations in the 16th century, and the Camel Library Service in the very recent history in Kenya (begun in 1996).

The best thing about the book is its fun perspective on all things librarian — after all, as Kathleen Low states in her introduction, “Today’s librarians are anything but boring — so be prepared to have your preconceptions shattered.” 🙂

Sources used:

  • Low, Kathleen. Casanova Was a Librarian: A Light-Hearted Look at the Profession. McFarland, 2007.
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