A Librarian of Congress for the 21st Century

4 min read
  • Government
  • Information Technology
  • Document & Records Management

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, 86, announced in June that he was retiring effective January 1, after holding the office since 1987. It was since moved up to October 1, to match the federal government’s fiscal year. Ever since his announcement, people have been talking about what the Librarian of Congress’ job should entail in this day and age.

Think of how libraries themselves have expanded their roles in that time. In 1987, we essentially didn’t have the Internet. (Really geeky people did, but ordinary people didn’t.) We barely had PCs, let alone laptops and smartphones. Not to mention Google, Yahoo!, the Internet Archive (the founder of which, Brewster Kahle, is being suggested for the position), Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Wikipedia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Digital Public Library of America, notes Alan S. Inouye, who leads technology policy for the American Library Association, in Roll Call.

Technically, the job of Librarian of Congress consists of the following duties:

These days, far from being supplanted by the Internet, libraries are more important than ever. In many communities, the library is the only source for free public Internet. And libraries such as the New York Public Library are on the cutting edge of many digitization projects, such as crowdsourcing digital archives.

It’s important to figure this out now because, chances are, the next Librarian of Congress will be around a long time. It tells you something about the position that, since it was first established in 1802, only 13 people have served in the role. And that makes sense. After all, once you’ve been Librarian of Congress, where else is there to get promoted to? (Some lawmakers are recommending a ten-year term of office for the position, writes Jon Brodkin in Ars Technica.)

Incidentally, despite the stereotype of a librarian being an older woman with glasses and a bun, there hasn’t been an actual librarian as Librarian of Congress since 1954. Billington, for example, was an historian.

“In picking a new librarian, [President Barack] Obama could again choose an historian, or he could turn to a professional librarian, a college president, a management professional, a former politician or a Silicon Valley technology expert,” writes Michael Shear in the New York Times. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, each has a number of potential candidates, and each has its own constituencies arguing in its favor.

One of the strongest arguments, however—and one we’re certainly behind—is that the next Librarian of Congress needs to embrace technology such as document imaging, enterprise content management, and records management.  Numerous critics have said that in recent years the Library of Congress has fallen behind in terms of taking advantage of modern technology. A series of government reports has faulted Billington—who reportedly used a fax machine instead of email—for not having a Chief Information Officer (CIO), losing track of its equipment, and mismanaging its $630 million budget.

Brodkin, for example, notes that in its position as the person responsible for handing out exemptions to the anti-circumvention provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Billington had made it illegal to unlock or jailbreak cellphones and tablets. This meant that cellphone owners couldn’t switch providers, until he was overruled by President Barack Obama.

Billington, for his part, notes that the Library of Congress has doubled in size, implemented a number of digital projects, and has had to deal with both a shrinking budget and shrinking staff. And a permanent CIO—Bernard Barton, formerly the deputy administrator and CIO of the Defense Technical Information Center—was hired earlier this month, the first since 2012.

Ultimately, “The Librarian of Congress needs to be someone who deeply understands and cares about library culture and the larger world of information literacy for the people that all libraries serve,” writes Jessamyn West in Medium. “We need the next Librarian of Congress to know how to say, confidently, ‘These things are important to our cultural heritage, to who we are as a nation, and this is why I am doing this job.’ and then follow through.”

West has also set up a website, Librarian of PROgress, to help advocate for the role. Other supporters include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which emphasizes the importance of the Librarian of Congress as a champion of intellectual advocacy. “Free speech, privacy, and intellectual freedom are core values of both EFF and librarians everywhere, and we can always use another well-placed advocate,” writes Parker Higgins, director of copyright activism.

What is the White House reportedly looking for? “The person should be something of a public intellectual with a scholarly bent, know how to manage a sprawling institution, and have an understanding of the complexities of both copyright policy and public access to information in the digital age,” writes Nancy Scola in Politico. She added that biographer Walter Isaacson had been suggested but has turned down the position.

“The library needs more than a respected scholar or librarian,” agrees Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, in Slate. In particular, he calls for the next Librarian of Congress to address copyright issues and coordinate digital library collections nationwide. The copyright issue is especially because some members of Congress are calling for the Copyright Office to be divorced from the Library of Congress altogether.  “It needs a visionary who can leverage the position to lead us through some essential upgrades and debates that could push this vital institution into public consciousness.”

Don’t hush up. The next Librarian of Congress is too important to keep quiet about.

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