Librarian of Congress James Billington recently announced he will retire after 27 years of service. The Library of Congress has an outsized role in our democracy: it is a wellspring of policy expertise for lawmakers, a cultural curator, and a hub in our information society. Its activities span from the Copyright Office to the Congressional Research Service, the Law Library to the Poet Laureate, and traditional library services to books for the blind. The role of the Library is shaped by the personality of the Librarian, who oversees a $600 million annual budget and 3,200 permanent staff, and by tradition is a lifetime appointee.
In recent years, public criticism of Dr. Billington has grown and been reported on in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. It is not my intention to revisit those critiques. Instead, I will focus on the qualities that the next Librarian of Congress should possess, touching on those criticisms only to inform the discussion. There are no formal requirements to be Librarian but appointment by the president and confirmation by the Senate; people who have filled that role have included poets, playwrights, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, and librarians.
I have been a close observer of the Library of Congress, at one time an employee there, and believe that the institution needs a strong leader with a diverse range of skills. More than anything else, the next Librarian must be a capable manager with a vision for the Library and a strong orientation towards using and adapting to new technologies.
In particular, the next Librarian of Congress should possess the following attributes:
- A strong commitment to and evolving understanding of library and information science.
- A background in research and analysis.
- An understanding of how to use the library and technology as a vehicle for civic engagement.
- The ability to embrace technological innovation over the next 30 years.
- An understanding of how to hire and oversee technology managers and projects.
- The ability to inspire people and create a positive work culture.
- A commitment to equal employment for all.
- Strong fundraising abilities.
Library and Information Science
The next Librarian of Congress must be an expert on library and information science in the modern sense. He or she must understand that the job includes not only overseeing the collection and cataloging of books and records, but also gathering the useful sum of human knowledge no matter the form, archiving it, and sharing it to make the information as widely accessible as possible.
Although the Library of Congress fills a public role to help advance and preserve human knowledge, the Library of Congress exists first and foremost to meet the needs of Congress. As the federal government continues to grow in complexity, the Library of Congress should possess the requisite skills to advise Congress.The next Librarian must shore up the Library’s analytical capacity and ensure Congress has the world’s information at its fingertips.
The Library is woefully behind in sharing its vast informational riches with the public and encouraging new uses of that information. The next Librarian must have an understanding of how modern technology has transformed the way the world communicates. The Librarian must be committed to using current technology and adopting new technology to further its mission. While willing to engage in public-private partnerships, the Librarian must keep free public access to information at heart. He or she must be open to working with civic technology developers and others to expand access and reuse of public information, and consider bringing such expertise in-house. And the Librarian must be dedicated to releasing information that maximizes public reuse.
It is axiomatic that no one knows what the future will bring. When Dr. Billington was appointed in 1987, microfiche was still a popular preservation medium, card catalogues were made of paper, and newspapers and TV were the dominant news sources. Now, the cloud, structured datasets, and blogs are the tools of the trade. There is no way to know how things will look in 30 years. The Librarian must embrace technology and innovation to keep the Library of Congress relevant in the 21st century and beyond.
The Library of Congress is technologically backward. A series of GAO reports (2015, 2012, and so on over 20 years) has detailed its inability to manage its information technology — or even to set forth a strategic vision. The next Librarian of Congress must have a vision for integrating technology into the work of the Library and understand how to hire and oversee technology managers and projects. In this era of constrained budgets, smart deployment and use of technology is essential.
Positive Work Culture
In recent decades there has been significant instability in the Library’s leadership. During Dr. Billington’s tenure, the average Deputy Librarian of Congress served fewer than 3 years. Reports of staff unhappiness are not uncommon. The current Librarian is known for a challenging, complex interpersonal style. The next Librarian of Congress must understand that leadership includes inspiring people and creating a work culture that encourages creativity, truth-telling, and respect.
Commitment to Equal Employment
The Library of Congress has not always engaged in fair employment practices. In the mid-1990s, a federal court found the Library engaged in racially discriminatory hiring practices between 1977–1988. In 2003, a federal court found a Library employee was improperly passed over for a job promotion on the basis of sex and race. In 2008, a federal court found the Library improperly rescinded a job offer to an Army special forces commander after it learned of her intention to have a sex-change operation. And an ongoing lawsuit alleges that a Library employee was harassed and ultimately fired on account of being gay. Racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have no place in a modern workforce. The next Librarian must redouble efforts to make the Library a welcoming place to work.
Fundraising by the Librarian is increasingly important as congressional appropriations have dropped. Appropriations for the Library of Congress have fallen by more than 7 percent between 2010 and 2014 (down $34 million), and staff have decreased by more than 11 percent between 2008 and 2013 (313 positions cut). Personnel, projects, and technology investment have all been cut to the point where the Library’s mission is imperiled. During his tenure, Dr. Billington oversaw the Library’s efforts to raise a half-billion dollars in donations from the private sector. While fundraising by the Librarian cannot offset these cuts, it can help preserve some vital programs.
There may be other traits the next Librarian of Congress should possess, but the foregoing should cover the bases. It is my hope that the President and Congress will work diligently over the upcoming months to identify the best candidates for an appointment that will shape American life for decades to come.