This is a guest post by Roberta I. Shaffer, Law Librarian of Congress, whose posts include 2016 New Year’s Greetings from the Law Librarian of Congress and An Interview with Roberta Shaffer, Law Librarian of Congress.
For so many people, including me, the swearing in ceremony of Carla Hayden as the 14th Librarian of Congress was an experience of a lifetime. I had the added thrill of having a small task behind the scenes. I was to greet the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, as he entered the Library of Congress building to administer the oath of office to the new Librarian.
The route that the Chief Justice took brought him through the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building, which was closed to the public for the duration of the ceremony. As he entered the room, the Chief Justice commented, “This is my second most favorite building in Washington – the Supreme Court is first, of course.” While I have long admired this Chief, it is not the first time that our opinions have differed. I naturally replied, “Oh really, this is my favorite! It just is so American.” And his reply, with a huge smile on his face, was “Yes, it is.”
One other thing that happened in the course of that short walk that also struck me as “so American” was the fact that the Chief Justice of the United States made sure to have eye contact and a greeting for each of the Library staff standing at their work stations waiting for the Library patrons that would shortly be allowed to re-enter the Main Reading Room and to resume the semblance of a normal day on this really most extraordinary of days. The Chief made himself so “real” that I believed for those few seconds he became the human representation of grace, accessibility, and openness. These American values are hallmarks of our judiciary but are also portrayed in nearly every nook and cranny of the Main Reading Room, and throughout the walls and halls of the entire Jefferson Building. These are, indeed, the enduring values of a democracy.
For me, the “so American” theme became my real memory of the ceremony. I had the great fortune to have an almost “front row” (6 rows back) seat from which to witness the actual event. After a number of inspiring speeches, the Chief Justice administered the oath of office and then he shook the new Librarian’s hand. It may be more accurate to say that they took each other’s hands. I noticed they both held on for a few seconds longer and looked directly at each other. I could not help but think, with Speaker Paul Ryan behind the two and standing next to Carla Hayden’s proud mother, that the handshake was delivering a message from everyone in the Great Hall and the countless others watching remotely from around the world. “We embrace you as you embark on this noble service to our nation. You are now part of the critical leadership of our country. We are all glad that you are here.” In those few seconds, I felt so empowered to be an American and by the role that all libraries, not just the Library of Congress, play in defining what “American” means. It was a “swearing-in” for us all.