“They’re Really Looking for Someone Fancy”
The following is a transcript of an interview with Jessamyn West from my podcast, Circulating Ideas, where we talk about our hopes and expectations regarding the next Librarian of Congress. Jessamyn is a librarian and community technologist in Central Vermont. She helps run the Internet Archive’s Open Library project and writes a column for Computers In Libraries magazine. I am a public librarian in the suburbs of Atlanta and a part-time podcaster.
Jessamyn, welcome back to the show.
Thanks for having me.
So we’re going to talk a little bit about the Librarian of Congress and you set up a site called the Librarian of Progress and the little phrase you have at the top of that is that there’s a job opening and that’s basically how a lot of people saw it I think when the current Librarian of Congress said he was going to retire, that that’s sort of, that’s the biggest librarian job in the country.
So, why do you, can you explain to listeners why that should be so. I mean can we kind of just know it because oh it’s the, it’s the librarian and anybody couldn’t think of who the actual person was, but everybody knows that there’s a Librarian of Congress. Why is it important that librarians should care about who is in that position?
Well, it’s funny. I think everybody knows there’s a Librarian of Congress sort of conceptually, but I don’t think people really understand even what the Library of Congress does unless you’re sort of a library nerd. Like, if you’re a library nerd, you’re like oh my gosh, the Library of Congress, it’s got this beautiful building, it’s in Washington DC, they have every book (which they kind of don’t, but whatever). They, you can ask them a question, blah, they do the Center for the Book stuff, maybe, I’m not totally sure, and, but realistically the Library of Congress has some very important roles, not just as the biggest, bestest library in this country, or arguably, the world.
But they also do some things that are super important, like I think a lot of people don’t know that the Copyright Office, for example, falls under the Library of Congress umbrella, the Librarian of Congress has this staff of 3,000+ people, 3,100 people, and those people do a variety of things, some of which are things you know about, you know, they do cataloging, they do reference work, they do research, they do Congressional Research Service, they prepare reports for congressional members on various topics. But they also run the Copyright Office, so you need to register for copyright, you need to do some copyright lookup, you need to understand copyright, you start out at copyright.gov.
So for people who are in sharing professions, which is how I really view the library world, whatever the outlines of the copyright law are, in addition to how the law is currently being enforced, matter an awful lot to sort of how culture spreads if that makes sense, so a couple of things that matter about those that I think people can take home with them and understand are fair use exceptions, for example. So, libraries, libraries, libraries are allowed to lend books because of specific things that are written into copyright law, we’re allowed to buy one book and lend it to a hundred people. Those laws are not the same for digital content and that’s why borrowing an ebook is such a pain in the neck as opposed to borrowing a print book. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of blah blah computer reasons, too, but the whole reason we have digital rights management, that we have to grapple with, is because the law is different.
Fair use, which is like, “Am I allowed to use this content for different purposes?” is something that isn’t, I mean the concept of fair use is enshrined in copyright law, but the specifics of fair use are hammered out through lawsuits, like somebody uses a thing and they say, “I think it’s fair use ‘cause it meets these four points in the copyright law,” but if somebody disagrees with you and it’s their stuff, you have to go argue about it in court. Lately, the fair use environment, meaning if I want to put a picture up behind me in my rock and roll show and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah, has been a little bit more share-friendly, which I think is really good news. Which is good news for people who want to share stuff, content creators I think are a little bit concerned, but if you just want to know if you can put a picture on your website, or play a song in your YouTube video, or do a whole bunch of stuff that may or may not be legal, the copyright office and the sort of fair use dictates that they put in, are the people who kind of keep track of it, and so having a Librarian of Congress — back around at the original topic — who’s share-friendly, who’s fair use friendly, who talks up our fair use rights, cause like teachers have specific rights that are enshrined in copyright law under the TEACH Act, but the rest of us shnooks don’t necessarily and so having a Librarian of Congress who talks the talk in addition to just running the copyright office, super important.
And the biggest thing to me that is not a library thing you would think about is the Librarian of Congress every three years gets to decide what exceptions get to be enshrined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act law. So DMCA is like, I mean, I’m hand-waving here cause I’m not a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer, I’m not any kind of lawyer, but DMCA is the big thing, it’s like hey you’re not really allowed to screw around with digital devices that companies build. So, like, you have a cassette tape, cause I’m a million years old and I listen to cassette tapes sometimes, you can make a copy of that, and that’s fine. You have a CD? Itunes, you can rip that to iTunes and that’s a thing that iTunes does. You have a DVD and you want to make a copy of a DVD? You actually can’t, like there’s technology protection built into that, I mean, “can” is a tricky word, right, like I know how, but technically it is against the law and so if I’m a librarian and somebody comes up and they’re like I want to make a copy of this DVD, I’m like deer in the headlights cause I’m like “Uh, you can’t?” Like, technically you can but it’s illegal and one of the reasons it’s illegal is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Now the Librarian of Congress gets to put exceptions in, so DMCA has a whole bunch of things you can’t do, Librarian of Congress, one of the things that’s built into the law is the Librarian of Congress gets to say “Except for these things!” and some of those are just oversights in how DMCA worked, but some of them are basically new things that people can do with their devices, that I like to say are like a license to print money, so like I have a phone, I have a cellular phone, I have a cellular smartphone, I want to go to another country with my cellular smartphone. Verizon, who is my provider, would really like to charge me an incredible amount of money to go to England and use their service in England. However, if I could unlock my phone, I could go to England and just slip in a SIM card and just pay for the data and the calls that I wanted to use. Unlocking used to be a thing that was against the law to do with your phone, and now is a thing I think not only you can do with your phone, but like new iPhones come unlocked now, Apple’s just like “We lost, we’re gonna deal with this in some other way.” And so anybody who can build a service on top of unlocked phones, like the company who would sell me the card that I get when I’m in England that I can receive texts and data on, all of a sudden has a business model where they didn’t before. And so that’s pretty interesting and so every three years there’s a whole bunch of clamoring for how that’s gonna work and what the exceptions are going to be and are we going to be able to have a whole new business with DMCA exceptions?
The fact that this happens every three years is practically criminal in itself because technology’s changing so quickly, but so the Librarian of Congress gets to do some weird, tricky things that affect other parts of culture that aren’t just library culture, and so I really feel like not just librarians, but everybody should sort of, everybody who uses technology, which is really most of us should care about that kind of thing because it’s gonna affect our lives even if they don’t sort of know that and just openness in general, I feel like libraries historically have gotten a bum rap. Not recently, but 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago that we were gatekeepers, that our job was to keep the information safe and to only let certain people who had status have access to them and we’ve really that information and we’ve really changed that over time, but I feel like the Librarian of Congress who’s currently there is a little old model. He’s historically known for having lots of fancy parties for his rich friends, and he’s less known for opening up the Library of Congress to blah blah blah, like if you look at the tenure of various other Librarians of Congress, many of them have done things that really opened up the collection or the buildings and Billington for a lot of the good he did, didn’t do that and I want to see the Library of Congress as my library of Congress, and our Library of Congress. I want to tell little kids in my little town that that library is for them, but I want it to have a person at the head of it who’s going to back me up on that.
Yeah, I was gonna ask about, I don’t want to obviously turn this into “Let’s all bash Billington!” episode here, but…
He did some good things, and some bad things.
That’s what I was going to ask, what are some good things that you think he’s done over his tenure of what, almost 30 years?
28 I think, yeah. He raised a lot of money, an awful lot of money and one of the things you do in that job is raise a lot of money because the Library of Congress is embarrassingly underfunded, I mean it’s shocking. Like, this country does not have its priorities straight in terms of the things they fund, and the things they don’t fund, so having somebody who led the institution and raised an incredible amount of money, that’s the good news. Now, the bad news is if you’ve been reading the news he spent half of that money on fancy parties for him and his fancy friends, and traveled first-class everywhere and stayed in the best hotels and whatever. But he also preserved documents, put on exhibitions that showed off some of the collection in ways that were fancy.
I feel like Billington brought some gravitas to the position, where you really believed the Librarian of, the Library of Congress was freaking awesome, like some people can head an organization and be like this organization is top-notch, you know what I mean? So it’s weird, because I think it’s a position and status thing, I think the more you position Library of Congress as top-notch, the more you’re privileging it, in a weird way that kind of makes it not for everybody, and I think that’s awkward and bad. But I do think establishing the organization as something that is culturally significant and important and one of the most important things, I feel like Billington did that. I feel like he took very care of the building. I feel like he, under his tenure I feel like some really useful stuff, I mean he couldn’t help it, right? Like in the last 28 years, like 28 years ago was what? 1987? ‘97? ‘87.
Think about what the world looked like in 1987 and think about what it looks like now. Like he couldn’t help it, the Library of Congress has blogs, the Library of Congress has websites, the Library of Congress has the National Digital Newspaper Project, which is huge. They have American Memory which is huge. They have thomas.gov which is huge. Like, I think it’s a little hard because I think people look at Billington as a little bit of kind of a micro-managing jerk, but that stuff happened and it’s all huge and important and I don’t know enough about the inner workings of the Library of Congress to know if those things could have been better if he wasn’t meddling, or if they are awesome because he’s a nit-picking perfectionist.
They happened because of him, or in spite of him.
Yeah, I mean he did the World Digital Library which is amazing in terms of metadata and just sort of authority control and like all the things librarians care about, but it didn’t really have much of a ripple on the technology world because it’s precious if that makes sense. As opposed to the Digital Public Library of America which is kind of this shoe-string budget skunk-works-y thing that also looks pretty awesome, but also I think is having a wider ranging impact because they could just get out there, talk it up, bring people in, be a part of it. Like I think more of us in the library world have gotten a chance to be a part of the Digital Public Library of America, who the Library of Congress refused to work with, than have gotten to be part of the Library of Congress’ initiatives. And that shouldn’t be true, in my opinion.
But I think Billington was a scholar, I think he was a historian, I think he was serious business, I think he knew how to glad-hand fancy rich people and get them, and — ’cause he was a fancy rich person — and get them to donate and see the Library of Congress as a thing that mattered to them, I mean you look at the, what, the James Madison Council, there’s been a lot of talk about that in the media nowadays and sure they were all about like fancy parties and go go go us, but they also brought some stuff to the public that I think was useful. I think it’s really easy to sit back and be crabby about what you would do if you were the Librarian of Congress, which I try very hard not to think about ’cause I don’t, I mean people are like “You should be the Librarian of Congress!” I was, like, “Are you kidding me?” No one wants that job, like it’s like the President job, it’s a very hard job, and I think Billington, except for some of his, what I think people would see as personality flaws, he hated technology, wasn’t very good at it, really was capable and able to do a lot of it, but I do think that position has been sort of the thing you give, pardon me, to a retiring scholar who dies in the job, not something you give to an active, working kind of hot-shit librarian who makes the job into the best librarian job ever, which I think is what a lot of us would like to see happening.
Well, you mentioned that one of the things that they do is congressional research and I know you don’t work there or anything so you don’t the inner workings, but I always wonder about that, do you think when the Congress members go to get research from them, ’cause they always want to have their own spin on things, so I always wonder what kind of research they get from the Library of Congress, and if they then just take that and take what they want from it, or…?
It’s a fascinating question actually, and we would know more about it if the stuff that the Congressional Research Service created for Congress was available to the public, and it’s not. Or, rather it’s not made available to the public unless the public requests it. Like there was a big project that I think is a little defunct now called OpenCRS, which was “Hey, we want, like if it’s created by the Library of Congress for Congress, it belongs to the American people if it’s not classified and blah blah blah blah blah. Why don’t we have access to it?” And I think that question is a valid question, one that’s never received an awesome answer, like I can contact my Congress person if I know about a CRS report, and say, “Can you get that for me?” and they will get it for me and then I have it and I can do whatever I want with it cause it’s public, but the Library of Congress doesn’t publish them, and there’s no actual one place where you can get them all, which is embarrassing, I think.
But, really I think what they’re supposed to be doing is providing unbiased information on a thing, so you’re looking at what’s going on in Syria and you say well can you give me history of the Syrian refugee camp situation over the last five years, and the Library of Congress’s job is to just handle that without having a political agenda to the extent that you can, I mean, I sort of believe the personal political, but.
Right, sort of a “Just the facts, ma’am” kind of thing.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I mean that’s their job and Congress can then do whatever the heck they want with that, but they, I mean I think one of the things that’s so great about that, as a, as a process is it means… I mean cause that’s, that’s why we have libraries right? I mean that’s like one of the big things when people ask, “Why do we still have libraries and blah blah Google?” I’m like, “Because we’re a democracy, stupid!” and you need access to unbiased information and you can’t get that from Google, you can’t get that from Reuters, you can’t get that from the New York Times, you can’t, you can get that from the library and CRS reports are a great example of that because they’re really just trying to answer the question, not give you a spin on it so that you can buy something. And that’s what makes me really excited about that aspect of it.
I mean, one of the things that’s so funny is so, now I launched the Librarian of Progress website, and I’ve written a little bit about this, some of the things I talked about were things that, that people were interested in and kind of caught on, like oh yeah, should that person be a librarian? Or, yeah, copyright’s super important and people added other stuff that I hadn’t thought about like open access, which I’m not a scholar, academic so it’s not really on the front of my mind, but other people pointed it out and I’m like oh yeah right, totally. But then some stuff that I really care about, like OpenCRS, like CRS reports being open and available just crickets, like everybody was like, “…I guess?” Because it’s not a thing that they do that is public, but like….
Yeah, I know, I mean I obviously think it’s important too, that’s why I wanted to bring it up for us to discuss.
Well, and with a different Librarian of Congress, I mean, technically there’s a law that says those aren’t public, with a different Librarian of Congress that could just be cultural knowledge that we have, as opposed to squirreled away in archives and only available for Congress and Library of Congress staffers. I’d like to see more stuff made available. And I think that’s what we’ve been lead to expect from the internet nowadays, like, places that make public information also kind of need to work on making it available. You look at data.gov that happened underneath it after the Obama administration, and it’s amazing, like, all these data sets of like public information, information that belongs to us, the people, making it available so that people who want to, like, run number crunchy stuff on it and I am not a number cruncher, like I just look at these data sets and I’m like “Uhhh,” but other people can and they think that’s amazing and if you think about the amount of data that the Library of Congress has, and that we could have, they’ve got every Library of Congress record. We pay money for that from businesses, why we can’t we just get it from the Library? I mean I understand the actual answer, I’m not stupid, but like, but I do wonder, I mean how would the world be different if we weren’t all buying the same record for OCLC?
Yeah, and I think, you mentioned the Digital Public Library earlier, do you, I don’t know if it was you or somebody else that mentioned that that was really something that the Library of Congress should have been doing, that it was sort of…
I definitely say that, other people also say that.
Yeah, that it was created sort of because the Library of Congress wasn’t doing that.
Yeah, the Library of Congress was basically contacted by the people who sort of started the DPLA project, like a lot of well-meaning people at Harvard and other people, and were like we’d like you to be… I mean cause one of the things the DPLA’s really good at and I’ve had critiques of that project as well, but one of the things they’re really good at is Big Tent, you know, let’s have a lot of meetings and a lot of committee stuff, but let’s make sure people who have a stake in this feel like they’re part of the project. And I’m kind of a cranky gadfly in a lot of ways, but even I felt like I was part of that project, and that my voice mattered. And it became really clear, even when they were getting started, that what they really would have liked is the Library of Congress to be part of, or even the kind of sponsoring organization for the thing, I mean they made the World Digital Library, they’re not different things really, I mean World Digital Library has content, it’s not just a portal, but like infrastructure’s there, all this stuff is just databases and the Library of Congress really, I mean you read Bob Darton talking about it in the New York Times, the Library of Congress basically said no and you look at them and you wonder what kind of organization, like cause Digital Public Library is serious, it’s not like me with the Jessamyn Public Library of America, being like hey, can you give me a hundred thousand dollars so I don’t have to get dressed and go to work in the morning?
Like, DPLA is serious, they’re real people, they’re doing real work and so getting rebuffed by the Library of Congress was weird. And, but I mean you see the same thing happening in Europe right? There’s Europeana which is a different thing from the National Libraries, although I believe they’ve got buy-in from the National Libraries, they’re just a different thing. Whereas DPLA has buy-in from a lot of big academics, and a lot of people honestly, but Library of Congress is notably absent, and that’s a shame. And you wonder, I wonder, kind of what that’s about why that had to be true and it’s sort of comes back to like you know Billington’s all about Billington. I don’t really know, like, I know a lot of people that work at the Library of Congress and to a person there some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet. And to a person, a lot of them feel micromanaged or that they’ve been in a situation where they’ve been unable to thrive because of decisions made at upper levels of LOC and that’s too bad. It’s frustrating to be super smart and feel stifled, especially when you feel like that job should be the job you get to after a lot of hard work and stay. And I’m seeing a lot of people go through there and that shouldn’t happen.
Yeah, that should basically, that, that’s like the peak for…
Nominally, it should be, and it super isn’t. Instead, you’re seeing people go to academia which is fine, academia’s lovely, you’re seeing a lot of people winding up at Harvard, you’re seeing a lot of people winding up at University of Michigan, you’re seeing a lot of people winding up in high level positions in New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, Los Angeles Public Library, Seattle Public Library, which is also great, I mean, that’s great public service, but you look at all those people and you’re like, ahhhh, and I feel a little snotty saying that because obviously I wouldn’t want to live in DC, who does? But, I think with the right people, they don’t even have a CIO, and it would be awesome for them to have a Chief Information Officer who really got to start doing some stuff and right now they’re, they’ve been in this stasis for several years and that’s super awkward.
[Note: after this interview was conducted, Bernard Barton was named CIO.]
How important do you think it is, to you personally, that it’s a librarian, an MLS person, in that position? Or doctorate of librarianship, but person who’s actually a “Librarian”, capital-L-Librarian?
Well, I mean, my thinking has evolved on this. Partly because I feel like I have to be realistic, like, I feel like if I draw a line in the sand, and I’m like Librarian of Congress needs to a capital L librarian, degreed librarian, full-stop, I’m going to the mat. I actually have to deal with the fact that that might not happen and then what do I do? So, pragmatically, the statement that I think I can most get behind is I want them to be capital L or small l librarian, I want them to have library experience, or a library degree that’s substantial. I don’t want them to come from industry, and I don’t want them to be a retiring unmanageable person from another similar government organ, I mean that’s what Billington came from Smithsonian and basically almost got fired [correction: Billington’s previous position was with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars]. And then they took him on at the Library of Congress and we’re surprised that he was a crappy pain in the neck. No one was really surprised, but that’s all inside baseball, nerrrr, nerrrr.
So I really want someone who understands what libraries are about, I want someone who is right up there front and center in people’s face when they’re like “Errr libraries, you got Goggle, merrr, bleh bleh.” And talks about why the things that matter to us as librarians should matter to everybody, why sharing and fair use and copyright and accessibility matter, why authority control and metadata and sharing data sets matter. Why open access, why being very skeptical of people who want to sell you a thing in order to have you do a thing matters, why proprietary software and file types are a problem, why open source is useful and friendly. Like I don’t necessarily care that they’re from the Mozilla Foundation, but I really do feel like there are values in the profession that you cannot find in other places. I don’t feel like historians have the same set of values and for better or worse, they got their own values, like, I don’t have problems with them, but I feel like when you’re talking about somebody who has to run the world’s largest library, I feel like that person, I want that person to share my professional values at a pretty serious level because I feel like the one thing that I feel like is true and a problem for the library profession is a lot of times we’re content to work in the background. And, and that’s fine, like I, whatever, I love working in the background, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like ALA is maybe not as up and in people’s face as they could be and so you wind up with like someone at New York Public Library like being like rawr rawr rawr, this is how we’re going to do it, you see Tony Marx and his development plan and you don’t see ALA being like that’s not an awesome idea, because ALA is about librarians, libraries, library vendors, they’re about more than just librarians, which is how it works. But I feel like as a result, they’re sometimes not the best advocates for librarians the people, because they’re advocates for library culture writ large.
So, I’m a little concerned that we’re not maybe as good at stepping up for library professional values on a minute to minute basis as we could be. I think individual people are very good at that, but I don’t think we’re that good at getting our message out in the world at large. If you look at how the media represents librarians, it’s all about like retiring librarians beloved by their community, nothing wrong with that, or hey there’s a bunch of cool stuff on the internet, I had no idea and my librarian helped me, nothing wrong with that, but they’re not as much like looking at some of the stuff that New York Public Library Labs are doing and that benefits all of us, but we don’t talk it up like it belongs to us, we talk it up like it’s some magical thing that New York Public Library’s doing that none of the rest of us can do.
I mean, it’s a problem in public radio as well, public radio just takes it as a foregone conclusion that they’re awesome, and don’t feel like they need to kind of make that case and especially in sort of the technological world, like if you think of like libraries who are good on Twitter, for example, or like, librarians who are good on Twitter, I can think of small pockets of people, and I think librarians are like all over Twitter, sort of as individuals, but it’s weird watching our larger organizations not be as advocate-y vocal as you would expect them to be, to the larger world. I think we’re very good at having a conversation among ourselves. I think it’s a wonderful, I think it’s a wonderful cohort, like I love the cohort of librarians, they’re amazing, I love talking to my librarian colleagues, even though I mostly don’t work in a library, but I’m very librarians culture positive in librarian-culture-centric, but I feel like sometimes that message doesn’t amplify outside of the usual suspects, and the people who already have buy-in and I feel like that’s what needs to happen and I feel like that’s the reason why I want to see big L or small l librarian in the position is because I think that’s a megaphone position, where one person, literally one person could amplify that message in a way that was useful and I feel like Billington hasn’t done a bad job, but I feel like he’s been a pretty narrow-band broadcaster about what the library could do, and I feel like it’s 2015 and we need a broadband broadcaster about all the things libraries can do and that person could do that if they’re steeped in the culture in the right way.
So, long answer to a short question, but some kind of library person, not just a library industry person is what I would like to see, but I’m willing to be flexible and work with whoever they have, but they better be ready to work with me and the nation of millions of librarians that they’re bringing along with them.
Yeah, no, I think it’s most important, as you said, to understand our, the values of our profession and embrace them and that’s really the important part, and that’s, that’s what you learn by being a librarian, but yeah, there are other paths to that.
Yeah, I mean that’s a good way of putting it, I really, I really feel like that’s true. And drawing lines in the sand isn’t going to be helpful.
We’ve got to be Big Tent about it as much as I’m a crabby person, I realize that that’s what needs to happen.
Andy, Andy asked me to gather the Facebook group and I helped.
Andy Woodworth, okay. So, what kind of response have you gotten? I mean, it seems like it’s done a good job of getting the word out that this is something that’s happening, something we should be talking about. Have you gotten good response from…?
Well, you know I got to talk to the White House, right?
Yes, and I was gonna get to that, so yeah that’s one of the things I wanted to get to.
So, I mean it’s funny, it sort of comes in waves, right? I feel like what sort of happened was, I started talking about it as soon as I found out Billington was retiring, because I was like this is going to be big, you know what I mean? Like, I was, like, this is huge, immediately, like read about it in the paper, and was like I need a response right now, like I don’t know why I thought the government was going to like jump on this and, but I was like they could appoint someone next month, we better get on this, la la la la la la la la, and so the first thing I did, I think I chatted about it on Twitter a little bit, but the first thing I did was create the Library of Progress, Librarian of Progress website which was just, I mean it looks like a fancy thing, but I just took a template and typed some stuff in it. Like, it wasn’t actually that fancy.
Read some other articles about what people had been writing, and so there was a flurry of sort of initial conversation, like here’s the hashtag, here are the issues, I listened to what a lot of people said, like I said open access was not on my checklist, but it was on a lot of other peoples, so I added that in, Big Tent, it’s not about me, and so there was some conversation, and then it sort of backed off and then we started some stuff on Facebook, and there was some conversation, and then it sort of backed off. And then I started hearing from some people who worked at the Library of Congress, “Hey thank you, that’s good,” whatever, and then it backed off. And then other people, not me, started writing about it for mainstream media, Siva [Vaidhyanathan], I can’t pronounce his last name, but he’s a professor at Virginia, in Virginia, he wrote a big thing about it, a couple other people wrote an article about it on Medium, I wrote an article about it on Medium, and each time somebody wrote about it, there’d be a little uptick.
Although one of the things that was sort of interesting was some of the other people who wrote about it were literally just coming from their own perspective, didn’t even know there was “a movement” which I think speaks to how Inside Baseball it was in some ways. Like I feel like it’s a movement, but clearly other people had never heard of the, the #nextLoC thing, and maybe weren’t interested and didn’t care, or did know and didn’t mention it for reasons that are probably embarrassing to me, but I don’t know. I mean, my whole thing is like moving forward, moving forward. So, watching that sort of trickle around was super interesting because I think the messages were mostly positive, like it was mostly just like, “Hey let’s talk about this.” Not like “Rawr, let’s tell the Library of Congress what to do!” cause everybody knows, you can’t tell them what to do [laughs]. They don’t answer to me, or anyone really. I mean theoretically there’s a committee of Congress that’s the committee on I don’t even remember, I should probably look this up, but it’s in the #nextLoC thing, but I think it’s actually people from the personnel office that make the final shortlist that goes, like I don’t know if the personnel office makes a long list that goes to the committee which turns it into a shortlist, which winds up on the President’s desk, who makes a decision. I don’t know if the President makes any decision at all, they just have to not say no? Like, the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, nobody knows how this happens, how do you get that person, we don’t know, lobbyists lobby and then somebody gets spit out the other end of the black box, so the conversation is mostly just to make sure people feel like they know that it’s happening. But there have been sort of ebbs and flows in how much people are having the conversation at all and Twitter, I love Twitter, but it’s a little ridiculous for having a real conversation, it’s just how I get soundbites out there. I mean, and Facebook’s been a little bit better but, I mean it’s a good question, how do you have a national conversation about something like that in a way that gets to a lot of not-the-same-old-people playing internet games, you know what I mean.
Well, as you mentioned, it did get high enough up that you got a phone call.
That was so weird. So that’s the craziest thing that’s happened to me in the last ten days.
Just the last ten days?
Yes. Yes. My life has been crazy this summer. But, yeah, that was funny. So, so the, the White House has a Chief Digital Officer who’s a guy who I don’t know exactly what he does, but he’s very interesting and he talks about tools for civic engagement and how can we get the public engaged and whatever.
So, when he got started with this, he wrote a big article on Medium, I also write on Medium, I left a comment, we commented back and forth a little bit and I think he saw my Librarian of Progress thing, or I think I sent it to him, like oh you might be interested blah. And so I got an email from him, Jason Goldman, who used to work at Twitter I think? You’ll have to look it up. An email like hey you should talk to Valerie Green who’s the head of personnel at the White House blah. And so I was like bleh ahhh the White House? Blah! Sure! [laughs] So, I just sent an email back and he CC’d her and was like happy to continue the conversation and then never heard anything basically for a month and a half, which was not surprising. So I was at first very excited and then was like oh, well that’s how this works, of course, like somebody’s, like, this is important and then other people are, like, no, it’s not that important.
Oh and I looked it up and Jason Goldman is from Twitter, yes.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s what I thought. And he’s a, as he was like, you can tell super smart, super interesting, amazing dude I think, but I don’t know him other than literally through Medium. I think we know some of the same people maybe, ’cause like I run in internet circles in addition to librarian circles. And then I got this rando email last Tuesday being like “Hey, are you free for a phone call tomorrow? With the White House?” And I was like I had a house full of people, I was, I had pulled a muscle in my back, I was like “Ahhhh sure, sure.” And, and they were like “Here’s the call-in number.” I was like “Ahhh okay.” So, I thought maybe it was just going to be like some, like one of those dippy everybody call like a hundred people call in and somebody lectures you about something. I didn’t really know that it was just going to be me talking to Valerie and her assistant Amanda. Valerie Green and Amanda Moose about this job, like I had no idea.
And the funny thing about the internet, there’s a lot of funny things about the internet, but one of the funniest things about the internet was I kind of, I didn’t even know like am I allowed to talk about this? Is this a secret? I have no idea, like I don’t know, I’ve got no manners, I don’t know how this works. So, when I mentioned it afterwards, ’cause I didn’t want to mention it before then because I was just, I was like, I was just, I was going to drop dead, you know, I was so nervous, I was literally going to just drop dead, I didn’t want to talk about it. But I mentioned it afterwards to people who were like “Oh, job interview?” And I’m like oh bless your heart, like I am so not, I’m like middle-aged, mid-career, no professional management experience other than, like, the eight people working at Metafilter, to like you’re so sweet that like people would even think I could do a job like that, much less want a job like that, much less be considered for a job like that. And so I had to be like, “No, bless your heart, they’re really looking for someone fancy.” [laughs] But, I did spend 45 minutes talking to them about the process and about what I thought was important from a library perspective, and they’re super, again super on time, as are you, but a lot of people aren’t, a lot of people they’re like “Oh you want to talk at whatever o’clock?”, and then like 11:15 you get a text “Oh we’re running late, uhhh.” Like people are terrible at, White House super on time, Amanda and Valerie both incredibly sharp, nice, interesting. They didn’t tell me specifically how the process would work, but that they’re kind of responsible for having a bunch of conversations to figure out what people are looking for, because of course there’s a ton of people who would really like it if the copyright office were not in the Library of Congress, as an example. That’s an open debate I think and I think the person who they pick will have a big hand in determining how that works. So, that’s a thing.
How people felt about the librarian issue, and I told them basically what I told you, like I’m not gonna be like well they’re not my librarian if they don’t have a library degree, but I really did feel like it was important, but I felt like it was important for good reasons, not just because I feel that way. One of the things I think people like about talking to me, if I can be braggy for a second, is that I actually am pragmatic, like, I know they got other people to listen to who are not just me, and what I would like to do is reflect what I believe is the position of not just me, but, like, library people everywhere, many of whom agree on a lot of these topics. And then I can kick it up the foodchain in a way that it gets heard, cause I think there are a lot of people on the internet who are like, “Rawr rawr rawr! Hire a librarian or to hell with you!” kind of thing, and it’s good that there’s people with strong feelings who are making them, who are making it clear this is the thing that people have strong feelings about, but what’s less good is people feeling like they can’t talk to those people because they’re just going to get yelled at.
Like, one of the most telling things they said in the conversation that I had with them was whether I felt like there was anybody who would get chosen who there wasn’t going to be a large population of people just being like we hate that, we hate them, we’re so mad. To which I was like well there’s always going to be people on the internet who hate what you do, like don’t get me wrong, but I feel like you can craft that message in a way that makes it clear. Like, a lot of people have talked about the diversity issue, which I think is huge and a problem in the Library of Congress generally, not just who heads the Library of Congress, but like librarianship is 70–80% women and the Librarian of Congress has always been a white guy. We have a problem with diversity in the librarianship profession, it doesn’t reflect the populations we serve and the Librarian of Congress has always been a white guy. And there’s been some lawsuits about people of color, transgender people having issues feeling like they were getting discriminated against at their jobs at the Library of Congress. And that’s appalling, so I think we’ve got to steel ourselves for the fact that there very well may be another white guy heading the Library of Congress. I mean, I would be sad, but you can’t make diversity happen in one choice, it has to be a, a series of choices over time. Like, I mean just watching the Obama administration, the White House, you just look at pictures of the White House now and the White House is significantly more full of people of color at every level than it was under any previous administration. And that’s not just an accident, that’s somebody making an effort and that’s amazing because that’s what should have always been happening and it’s embarrassing that it didn’t and that’s sort of what I feel about the Library of Congress. Like, the Librarian of Congress doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman of color, although I think Carla Hayden would be maybe the best person I could think of for that position, she already lives up the street. She’s at Enoch Pratt Free Library, used to be ALA President, but I bet if they put the right person in that position, whoever that person was, over five years they could make the Library of Congress represent America in a way that I feel like it doesn’t already. And I feel like that’s the message that whoever gets in that position has to bring forward.
In the article that I wrote about the Library of Congress, I talked about when I was a blogger and I was chosen to go to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, which was actually pretty much the first time that anybody outside of Illinois had heard of Senator Obama and seriously, I mean, I met the guy. He came to our blogger breakfast, I shook his hand.
Oh, did he? Oh, wow.
Because he was the guy, like you could see that he was the guy they were sort of massaging to, like, skyrocket up the ladder. I mean, and you could tell why. He was charming, he was friendly, he was agreeable, his politics were in the right place, but the thing that I remember about him was that he mentioned libraries in his speech. And it was only him and Kerry that mentioned them. And me being like a much younger person in the audience, way up in the nosebleed seats, trying to think of how any of these candidates reflected my values at all, and listening to him talk about libraries as if he knew what the hell they were was huge. Huge. And talking about our gay neighbors as if that was just normal, which to me it always was, but that was not a position that was, we were seeing reflected in America. Again, embarrassing and to our shame, but seeing him just be like “Nope, this is just how it’s going to be!” Huge.
And so I feel like whoever gets in that position at the Library of Congress, they might not have, they might not reflect the diversity in their person, yeah I hope they do, but I don’t get to pick that. But they could definitely reflect the diversity of the country in their word and deed immediately. I mean, just having somebody be, like, “I may be a white guy, but here’s what we’re going to do to ensure the transgender people are safe and happy working at the Library of Congress.” Bam. Huge. Huge. And back it up, not just be like “I’m just giving lip service,” but back it up. I feel like people in positions of power are the ones that need to stick their neck out about where we need to be as a nation. And just having that person do that, the way Barack Obama talks about poor people, the way he talks about poverty, the way he talks about GLBT rights, the way he talks about transgender people specifically, the way, and he’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong. But, just seeing those things be on the sort of national discussion topic as normal is a really big deal and so the way I feel like Obama in 2004 normalized libraries and the way libraries stuck up for your right to privacy, I feel like the Librarian of Congress can normalize some of the other struggles I feel like people are having in a country that’s, this is going to be, it’s a weird thing to say, but like the majority minority soon. And we should be ready to handle that and it’s embarrassing that we aren’t and Billington has done an embarrassing non-amount of any of that, which is too bad cause he should have been doing it this whole time. But I think any number of really good people who are mid-late career, would do and say the right things and, and should be.
So that’s kind of where I, what I think about and what I told the White House was this message could be controlled a lot better than this message is being controlled, and I don’t mean that in some sort of creepy, doublespeak, Newspeak way, but that that person has significant power just in being a figurehead and a megaphone with a bully pulpit. It would be nice to see them advocating for some of the things we really care about and that’s the upbeat way of saying, “Please god don’t hire another white man,” like and nothing personal, white men are some of my best friends. But, the decisions that they make are gonna, theoretically the job isn’t forever, but that’s the way it’s played out since, people tend to not step down from it. Why would you? And so we have to keep in mind that if you hire somebody younger, in their 50s, they might be in that job for 30 years and we need to keep that in mind also and somebody who’s able to kind of shift with the times, cause we have no idea what the world is going to look like in 10 or 15 years, except that it’s going to be more different than it is now, and so that person better be good at handling that.
Yeah and I want to ask, I think presidents understand that about lifetime appointments. I remember when George W. Bush appointed Roberts on the Supreme Court, he intentionally got somebody who was young and he wanted him for the Chief Justice position because he wanted to put his mark on that.
I wonder if he regrets that? [laughs]
Yeah, right. It’s just one of those positions, it’s like, who was the other guy? There was another guy that was appointed by a Republican.
That didn’t quite do what you wanted, thought they were going to do.
Right, right, right.
But the, at the Obama White House has a, has a similar thing here with this position that is lifetime appointment and can make, as you said, as we’ve talked about all these major changes and, and can do it over a 30, 40 year period depending on how old they are. And I think that, do you, do you know the appointment process, is that just appointed by the president? Does it have to be approved by Congress?
Approved by Congress, yeah.
[Note: Congress recently passed S. 2162: Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015 to limit the term of the Librarian of Congress to 10 years. It currently awaits the president’s signature or veto.]
Okay, so, so it could, so lobbyists can get their…
Yeah, although who’s going to screw around with that, really. I don’t feel like most lobbyists even understand how important it is, but…
The copyright thing is what, is, makes me wonder if like the, the Hollywood people wouldn’t try to get in.
Well, that was one of the things they did say when I talked to them, I’m like it needs to not be somebody from the RIAA, or the MPAA. And they were like oh yeah, no. Like, they just, they just laughed at that, so I think that’s good? I mean [laughs] I mean they were very professional in that they didn’t, there wasn’t a lot of whisper whisper what about this guy? What about that guy? Like, I basically told them, like one guy who I thought they shouldn’t hire and other than that I was like you know we’re open and the, the main thing I signed off with is here’s 10 people you should talk to. You should talk to people from the Black Caucus, you should talk people, to people from Tribal and Native Librarians Group, you should talk to people from the Rural Library Association, you should talk to these Mid-Western librarians. You should talk to blah la la la la la la. Steve Potash from Overdrive, like there are people you should speak with who have different opinions and you should have those opinions as you make your decision. I mean I think my optimum thing, if I ran the world, was like I don’t know who they’d hire for Librarian of Congress, but what I want is that person to hire a super Chief Information Officer and then let them do their job, you know what I mean? Like maybe the Librarian of Congress has to be some white guy who glad hands a whole bunch of rich corporate donors, but then the CIO is the person who actually put their mark on what the Library of Congress actually accomplishes in a public facing way and that might actually wind up mattering more in the long run, who knows.
Well, that sometimes makes a good leader, is the team underneath them. And then he, the Librarian themself, like, yeah can be like the figurehead sort of, but…
Well and that’s what a lot of people said, that Billington’s problem wasn’t so much the things he did, but that the things he didn’t allow other people to do. That he’d be looking at people’s Powerpoint decks before they gave presentations, which is super not what his job should have been. And people resented that of course! So, bleh, somebody who does less of that would probably be more effective and then people who are brilliant and awesome who work there could get their jobs done, which would be terrific. Maybe they’d get some new computers, I think they have a problem with their tech being a little old.
Yeah, well, and then probably to read those Powerpoint slides you had to have them faxed to him first.
I wonder about that story, like, I wonder, cause that’s the story we all read, right? That, like, Billington would like work at home in the mornings and if you wanted to get in touch with him you had to fax him. Like, I wonder if it’s so much worse than that, that we could imagine and that that’s them putting a positive spin on his situation? Or if, actually, he’s mostly with it and people are just needling him and being like jokey jokey. Like, I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a professional who doesn’t use email nowadays, who does anything that has to like, maybe you’re a farmer, but like farmers use all the technology around here at least, I live in rural Vermont, farmers are with it. So I try to think, like, who wouldn’t use it and maybe there’s some people, but in that position? Like, again, it’s embarrassing that he doesn’t use email and also it sends the wrong message about how those people should be able to do their jobs, if that makes sense.
Yeah, but as you said, it could have just been he’s behind the times, and somebody made that as a joke sort of and then it got picked up and then reported as a serious thing.
I am willing to accept that it is not as bad as it looked, but it looks kind of bad. [laughs]
Well, and I think it speaks too that he’s behind the times, that even if he’s not that far behind the times, I think that’s what the joke would be, is that he’s not up on current culture.
Well, and one of the things super interesting to me is how not part of the conversation he is at all.
I haven’t heard anything from him, I’ve never seen a quote at all I don’t think from him about it.
Like basically there were, there were some interviews with him, cause the OAB, OAB? Office Government, GA, oh GAO, the Government Accountability Office, published a couple like super scathing reports about the Library of Congress that basically could have been summed up in two words: clown show. Like, they’re not handling it, they’re not dealing with it, they’re not doing what they should be doing and so there was some early press, I think it must have been in February or March where Billington was like “I’m not stepping down!” [laughs] and that was the last time you saw him speak publicly until he was, like, “I’m going to retire.” And people were like hey, thanks, great, that’s awesome. He has been absolutely zero part of the conversation since then, I have not read a single thing where’s he’s spoken on the record at all and nobody has, which you would expect that the Librarian of Congress, I mean that’s kind of your job, is to shut up about sort of high level stuff like this, but it has been sort of a noticeable lack because theoretically there have been jobs that I’ve left where I’ve been part of the leaving-the-job conversation, because why not? You’re not mad.
He’s leaving amicably I think, so, we think, yeah.
Yeah, but that’s been, that’s been interesting as well and, and may speak just to kind of how government operates as opposed to how private or public sector stuff operates.
Right, right. Well, so I want to wrap up with, this is gonna probably come out early September and we’ll, we’re going to assume for the sake of the argument that nobody’s been appointed yet in the next week or so after we talk.
I hope so, this is going to be kind of awkward.
So do you have any kind of in your brain, I mean obviously I’m trying to think of how government works again, but of what kind of, do you think they would try to have somebody in place for January when he’s gone? Or do you think there will be a gap?
The one, one of the things they said was they’re accelerating the process now, like I kind of got the feeling they just kind of took the summer off as far as this, this situation went. I mean I think that’s kind of the reason that like Jason was like oh you should talk to these ladies in July, but then I didn’t hear from anybody until August. I think now they’re starting to really kind of get going on it and I think what they really want is to have someone solidly in position before Obama leaves and I think what they’d really like is to have someone pretty solidly in position before Billington leaves. To the extent that they can. But I don’t, I don’t know what that means in government speak. What they said specifically was accelerating the process and they said they’d like to have a list out, and I don’t know what their list, how many, how many other sets of people their list goes through, so muh?
Or how many conversations they’re having with other people like they had with you, of different individuals.
Yeah I’m sure they’re having dozens, I hope so, I mean I don’t think I’m that special, I just think I can be available for a phone call at noon on a Wednesday. And people trust me which is nice and I’m flattered by that, but I’m sure they’re speaking to a ton of other people, but I think they’re trying to wrap this up. And I think that, to the extent that Billington’s comfort level has anything to do with it, it’s a lot easier to leave a job when you know it’s in good hands. I mean can you even name the Deputy Librarian of Congress?
No, no one can. Which, I think speaks a little bit to Billington’s cult of personality, but also just, I’m not even sure there is one. And… this is so stupid, I’m an idiot, let me look this up cause this is going to drive me crazy. But there should be one, right?
Yeah, I mean I would imagine that, he’s got to have a number two, right? I mean.
I assume so, what if he dies?
Ah, David Mao who was, who was appointed in January, he was in charge of the Law Library of Congress, he was in CR, he was at CRS, he graduated from GW in Georgetown, he looks kind of awesome basically and the new Chief of Staff, so I don’t know anything about David Mao, but I assume he’s the one who’s stepping in if they don’t have an appointment. Oh yeah, that guy, yeah, I mean, he seems cool, but he’s only been in the job for 8 months at this point, so that’s kind of interesting.
A little bit.
Sorry we didn’t know who you were David if you’re listening.
I’m not, so sorry, now, now I want to kind of… 23rd, so he’s the 23rd law librarian of Congress, well and that’s the other weird thing right, there’s a whole bunch of other national libraries, like the National Library of Medicine, that’s something that didn’t make it to the top of my checklist, but I think it’s really on other people’s checklists. Like, we have 3 or 4 national libraries, they should be one thing. Why aren’t they? Et cetera. So I think that’s not, that’s not in my wheelhouse at all but I think is another thing they’re going to be seriously, seriously thinking about.
Yeah, well we, I think we all learned about that in library school, of, that the Library of Congress is not actually the national library.
Not the national library, which is only, I think that only librarians know, no one else knows that.
Everybody else assumes it is and they act that way, so.
And that’s another thing a Librarian of Congress could do, I mean, it could be the national library, they just have to pass some legislation.
Right, right, I mean it basically acts in that way already, so it’s just.
Yeah, I’d kind of like to see it be official.
Yeah, I would too, yeah.
All right, well, if people want to contribute to the conversation for however much longer it goes on, where do you recommend people go to, to learn more about this?
It’s got a, you need to ask to be a part of but we approve everybody, Facebook group, that’s, I think it’s Facebook.com/nextloc, or you should be able to find it. But #nextLoC is the hashtag, get in touch with me, get in touch with your elected representatives and tell this is something you care about. Talk to ALA. I don’t know if ALA has made specific recommendations yet, though they always do. Library Journal actually just this month, well not this month, but, not this week but last week, two weeks ago maybe, had both of their editorials were about the Librarian of Congress, so you could interact with Library Journal and sort of talk to them about it. John Berry, who I think is known personally, or at least given a handshake to the last five Librarians of Congress, has some interesting things to say about it, and I think it would be worth knowing that.
But mostly what I think people should do is educate themselves about why this position matters, and even on a personal level, maybe it matters to you for a different reason than it matters to me. And then go and educate other people, because I think cultural heritage is hugely important, the sharing thing is hugely important and I really feel like as we’re seeing more and more encroachment from corporate and business interests, now more than ever this is something that matters, so we should be working to get that message out as much as we should be having that conversation with each other.
All right, well, Jessamyn, thanks so much for the conversation and I hope we’ll all be pleased with whoever is chosen in the next few months.
I know, me too, crossing my fingers and it was really nice to talk to you, Steve.