City No. 1 was Chicago, her hometown, a place where she had earned her master's and doctoral degrees in library science and spent almost all her professional life, with the exception of four years as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The system there was bigger than the Pratt, had more books, more branches and a spanking new library, dedicated to the late mayor Harold Washington. But for a year, Hayden had stayed in the No. 2 position there, while city leaders and the library board failed to agree on who should assume the top post.
All Baltimore had was the Pratt, then in a decline feared to be irreversible. But for a scholar like Hayden, the Pratt had an allure no other system could match. All Baltimore brag aside, the Pratt was one of the nation's most famous library systems, helping to inspire Andrew Carnegie's famed building program in the early part of the 20th century.
Baltimore's interest in Hayden seemed to create momentum for her in Chicago. The tug-of-war over Hayden generated almost daily updates in the Chicago newspapers. Even as Mayor Richard Daley's office was issuing press releases claiming it had convinced Hayden to stay, she was en route to Baltimore to accept her new job.
"Carla has always been very private, but I think she really was disturbed by what happened in Chicago," says Margaret Mary Kimmel, a friend and colleague from Hayden's days at the University of Pittsburgh.
"She called me one day and said, 'I can't believe the kind of things that are going on here. It makes me uneasy to go out and get a newspaper for fear someone will come out and ask why are you buying that paper?' It was at that kind of a micro level, and she realized it was really important to keep your private life private. The public library is always looking for an opportunity to make its case in public, but not like that."
Asked about it now, Hayden says dryly: "My grandmother enjoyed it. She never knew a librarian could achieve that level of prominence."
In the end, it really was no contest, Hayden says. For someone steeped in the scholarship of public libraries, "coming to the Pratt was like coming to Mecca."
That Mecca could be improved only made it sweeter.
Restoring the legacy
The Pratt board of trustees are meeting at the Clifton Park branch, essentially one large room, but a gracious place. Built in 1916, it now does double duty as the garage for the Pratt's fleet of bookmobiles.
Until recently, that fleet was one bookmobile, which was in the shop more than it was on the road. The board had authorized money for new vehicles, says Hillman, but the purchase was continually delayed. Now Hayden has not only put the Pratt back on the road, she has done it well ahead of her own self-imposed September deadline.
"It's just a small example of how one person makes the difference," says board chairman Hillman, as he and other board members circle the shiny new white bookmobile and two mini-vans. "Organizations are driven by people. We just lucked out and got the right person."
By implication, Hayden's predecessor, Anna Curry, had ceased to be the right person. A long-time Pratt librarian and a native Baltimorean, Curry was appointed to the director's job in 1981. Initially, people celebrated at finding a director who had come up through the Pratt's ranks. But as money became increasingly tight, Curry floundered, reluctant to make the painful choices faced by urban libraries in the late '80s and early '90s. The board had already approached Hayden and other applicants when Curry was fired in October 1992.
The question was, could the Pratt be revived?
Founded in 1886, the Pratt was one of the country's best-known library systems for much of this century. Famed for its special collections -- from Poe to Mencken to popular songs -- it was the place where many of the country's librarians began their careers.
Wheeler, who oversaw the construction of the main building on Cathedral Street, was considered a true visionary. It was his idea to eliminate the sweeping steps that gave most libraries a sense of grandeur. Instead he wanted to bring the library down to street level, so it was literally more accessible to the public.
But by the time the Pratt celebrated its centennial with much fanfare, its legacy had been badly eroded. Circulation had slumped, even as the Baltimore County library had achieved the highest per capita circulation in the country. The book budget had been slashed -- in part because its overall budget, in constant dollars, was lower than it had been 20 years earlier.
Arriving in July 1993, Hayden began with a clean sweep -- literally. Soon, the once-dingy Central Library sparkled again, and new books began appearing on the kiosks reserved for recent publications, as purchasing procedures were streamlined. Hayden assembled a new management team and pushed for the Pratt to hire a development director. The computerized card catalog, PrattCat, debuted in May 1994, followed by its online service, Sailor, in July.