There is a straight line from the worst person in the government to quite possibly the best: Every tweet that Donald Trump sends each morning, setting off news alerts for a groggy American public, pings across millions of timelines before settling in its final resting place, the Library of Congress. The keeper of those tweets—and of George Gershwin’s piano, Rosa Parks’s peanut-butter-pancake recipe, and Bob Hope’s joke collection—is Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, an Obama appointee who embodies the calm, measured wisdom of the 44th President and the forward-looking hope of that era.
The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson visited the library in the days after the Inauguration and she wanders through the collection like a person tasked with cataloging Noah’s Ark, the last great treasury of humanity tossed upon the seas of an angry God. At the helm is Hayden, a career librarian with a drawerful of butterscotch candy. Hayden replaces 87-year-old James Billington, a Bush-era appointee who had “been asleep at the switch” as the library struggled with the digital age. The library is still far behind where it should be technologically—Kyle Chayka at n+1 noted that the library did not have a Chief Information Officer from 2012 to late 2015, among other institutional failures—but Hayden’s cool competence is a light in the bureaucratic darkness.
Hayden met the Obamas when they all lived in Chicago. When I asked about her relationship with them, she was reticent—no anecdotes, no self-aggrandizement. (She also gently demurred from talking about Trump.) But if you watch footage of the Inauguration, you can see the affection there. Hayden, in a black coat and black gloves, is seated just to the right of the Capitol door. Michelle Obama, looking melancholy, smiles and waves in her direction. A minute later, someone yells, “maga!” Horns sound, and Chuck Schumer, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and President Obama emerge. Obama sees Hayden, waves, beams, approaches her, and leans in for a hug. “Sir!” she says, heartily, patting him on the back.
In her office, Hayden picked up the Jefferson candy bowl and offered me some butterscotch. “This is my secret sauce,” she said. I asked if there was anything in the library’s collections that people might love to explore but not know about. “Oh, yes! Oh, my goodness, yes!” she said. “Like the comic-book collection.” It’s the largest in the world. She described the depth of knowledge among the librarians: “You’ll say, ‘I’d like to see the original “Luke Cage,” ’ because of the TV show. And then they tell you, Luke Cage first appeared in this comic…’ And they just keep going.”
I later visited Georgia Higley, the head of the newspaper section of the serial division, who showed me an array of comics milestones (“All-Negro Comics” from 1947; Batman; Luke Cage), many so valuable they’re available only to scholars. I was struck that even “Archie” had notes of the country’s painful history and present: “The Mirth of a Nation,” the cover said, as ice-skating Archie flew over some barrels, toward a hole. “Wonder Woman,” Winter Issue No. 7, from 1943, was called “Wonder Woman for president.” There she was, with her boots and golden lasso, banging on a lectern covered in stars-and-stripes bunting. Below that, it said, “1000 years in the future!