At the University Commencement ceremony on May 18, Columbia awarded six honorary degrees to distinguished recipients in academia, culture, and politics, including Librarian of Congress Carla D. Hayden. Hayden, the first African American and the first woman to lead the Library of Congress, was initially nominated for an honorary degree by Research Collections and Services Librarian Ian Beilin, who praised Hayden’s “extraordinary career accomplishments.”
“Recognizing Dr. Hayden as the first Black woman – both the first woman and the first person of color – to lead the Library of Congress, I also thought that honoring her would help to underscore the University’s professed values and commitment to equity and free speech, particularly at a time when those values were increasingly challenged,” Beilin said.
Hayden’s nomination was also enthusiastically supported by University Librarian Emeritus James G. Neal, former President and Treasurer of the American Library Association (ALA) and a long-time friend of Hayden’s.
Beilin answered several questions about the nomination process, his motivation to recognize Hayden, and the role of letters of recommendation.
What motivated you to nominate Dr. Hayden for an honorary degree?
As a member of the Senate’s Honors and Awards Committee, I serve on a subcommittee specifically tasked with nominating candidates for the Honorary Doctor of Letters. While we try to solicit nominations from the whole University community, individual members of the committee sometimes also make nominations. Around 2017 or 2018, I thought that Dr. Hayden would make an ideal recipient of the honor as someone whose extraordinary career accomplishments were worthy of the University’s recognition. Recognizing Dr. Hayden as the first Black woman – both the first woman and the first person of color – to lead the Library of Congress (LoC), I also thought that honoring her would help to underscore the University’s professed values and commitment to equity and free speech, particularly at a time when those values were increasingly challenged. I also see her emphasis on increasing accessibility, in all senses, to the LoC’s vast collections sends a strong message that we, both the Libraries and the University, should want to support.
Can you talk about your experience on the honorary degree committee?
I’ve been serving on the Senate Honors & Prizes Committee since 2017, when I first was elected as a Senator from the Libraries. In “normal” times, the committee meets in the Spring semester to help nominate candidates for honorary degrees and prizes to be awarded at the following year’s Commencement ceremony. A highlight each year is the annual awards dinner at the President’s house, held on the evening before the University Commencement. At the dinner, each awardee is introduced by the President and then makes some remarks to the gathered guests. It was a particular joy this year to be able to finally gather there [in person] after a three-year hiatus to celebrate the awardees, but most of all, to finally meet Dr. Hayden.
What was it like to meet her?
Dr. Hayden attended the dinner, along with her mother, as did the other honorees. I was able to introduce myself to her not only as a senator and librarian, but also as the person who had nominated her for the award, so that was very gratifying. I had seen her in person at the 2018 ALA conference in New Orleans and it was a bit like spotting a rock star! But I didn’t get to meet her until the awards dinner in May.
University Librarian Emeritus Jim Neal wrote one of the recommendation letters. How do those letters inform the decision process?
Jim was also in attendance at the awards dinner because he was someone whom I had asked to write in support of Dr. Hayden’s nomination. Jim has been good friends with Dr. Hayden for a very long time, so he was able to speak to the many facets of her varied career and her stunning achievements. He was also able to provide insight from the perspective of someone who led the Libraries at Columbia, in addition to his other leadership roles in the library world. His was a very helpful perspective to have and I was very grateful that he provided that support for us.
Letters in support of nominees play a crucial role in the process because they are used by the President to gauge the influence and importance of a given nominee’s career and accomplishments. This is in addition to the case that members of the Honors and Prizes Committee provide in person at our annual meeting with the President. I was the one who did this in the case of Dr. Hayden. It’s basically a two to three minute stump speech for the nominee, emphasizing all of the highlights of their career, how and why they stand out in their particular field, what kinds of contributions they have made to the wider world, and, last but not least, why Columbia specifically should honor the person. But the letters of support from both within and beyond the University community, typically from people well-known in related fields who can speak to the accomplishments of the nominee, are really what seals the deal [in the nomination process].