The Librarian of Congress position is open. Most librarians don’t want this job, but we do care deeply about who is appointed to the position.
James Billington is retiring at the end of 28 years of leadership of the Library of Congress. Billington has raised a lot of money and, more importantly, raised the profile of the LoC as it slowly and sometimes awkwardly transitioned into the digital age. Now it’s time for someone else to take over, someone who can show the world how the world’s largest library can get things done and get them done right.
The position comes with a lot of leeway to focus on various aspects of librarianship. Recent Librarians of Congress have accomplished many things in addition to the day-to-day work of managing a huge staff and what is arguably the world’s largest and most international library. Here are some examples.
- Herbert Putnam introduced Library of Congress classification system.
- Archibald MacLeish began the process of establishing a US Poet Laureate.
- Luther Evans worked on “cultural reparations” returning manuscripts from the LoC to their home countries.
- Lawrence Mumford, the last actual librarian to hold the position, increased access and services for users with disabilities and added an African Books and Children’s Books section to the library.
- Daniel Boorstin opened the Library of Congress reading room to the public.
There’s been a lot of jockeying for influence before the new appointment gets announced. The Librarian of Congress position is over 200 years old and is seen to many as the most important librarian job in the country. While the position is appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, the library belongs to the people, people who have strong ideas about what they’d like to see in the country’s chief librarian.
I believe in pragmatism.
This person isn’t going to be able to single-handledly answer the question “What is the ultimate role of librarians in this new millennium?”
However, they should be able to offer advocacy, leadership, and strong character as we continue to grapple with that question.
In conversation with librarians, library workers, information professionals and various Internet People, I’ve tried to assemble lists of priorities. What do we care about, and don’t we care about? It’s too easy to create a strawman of “librarian demands” that gets rebuffed without even understanding the complexities of the multiple and sometimes competing priorities of this sort of a position.
Here’s my wishlist for what my cohort and I would love to see in a Librarian of Congress and by extension, the institution itself.
- We don’t need you to blog or tweet or Instagram necessarily but we do need you to engage with people using technology appropriate to the decade we are in. Billington was famous for communicating via fax and not-so-privately railing against the internet. Don’t be that guy.
- We don’t need you to overhaul copyright law immediately, but we’d like there to be movement in the direction of reasonable copyright reform. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act exceptions that you alone are responsible for impact tech culture in significant ways and should be expanded and more frequently issued. Explaining why this provision exists and why it is important should be part of your advocacy work. We need you to support us as we advocate for fair use and help us overcome the chilling effects of decades of government-supported copyright menacing. There have been tentative steps in this direction; we’d like to see them continue and progress.
- We don’t expect you to make all your digital content available online for free, but we would like you to share as much content as possible within the limits of the law. You can advocate for the positive societal benefits of this sharing for cultural heritage institutions and rights holders. I’d like every search at the Library of Congress’s web site to allow me to limit results to “things I can get my hands on” or “orphan works” or “items allowed for non-commercial reproduction.” Information and knowledge created with public funds such as Congressional Research Service reports should be made available to the public, who paid for them.
- We don’t need you to build sexy data visualizations of all the statistics you log and track (though it would be nice) but we’d love it if these datasets would be made available to journalists and researchers. It would be great to see the LoC as a leader in the Open Access movement — encouraging people to share scholarship in ways that are digital, online, free of charge and favorably licensed. Offering API-based access to your metadata and your data would aid in this knowledge discovery. Again, some of this is happening, we’d like to see more.
- We don’t need you to have a library degree, but it would be a bonus if you come from a tradition of scholarship, one that understands the significance scholarship to the history of the library profession. We’d like the library to be a good place to work. We haven’t had a trained librarian in the position in forty years, to us that matters.
- We don’t need you to handle everything immediately, but we would like to know what you’re going to do about the 31 recommendations from the Government Accountability Office’s report published in March. We’d like a permanent Chief Information Officer hired who has real authority to fix some of the Library’s IT weaknesses. We would like to know the plan for processing and managing the immense backlog of cataloging and material processing that has been piling up. We’d like to see the Kluge Prize awarded again.
We don’t expect all this to happen, so we should mention what we would settle for.
I’d personally like a Librarian of Congress who I felt was committed to the idea of service — service to the American people via the mechanism of the best library on earth. Some of this is about being a good diplomat, a good delegator or a good decision-maker, but some of it is just about creating and continuing the library’s conversation with the public.
The way we talk about our culture and our library culture matters a great deal.
I was a “credentialed blogger” at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. I had a library blog that sometimes talked about politics. I was most concerned about how library issues — the USA PATRIOT Act was on a lot of people’s minds — would be represented on a national stage. At the event, we got advanced copies of all the major speeches. I read through them looking for nods, mentions, acknowledgements.
Only two speeches mentioned libraries at all. John Kerry talked about innovation.
A young generation of entrepreneurs asked, what if we could take all the information in a library and put it on a little chip the size of a fingernail? We did and that too changed the world forever.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States…. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States and have gay friends in the Red States.
Hearing a speech at the DNC that mentioned libraries in more than an “Oh I sure do love books!” way was a huge shot in the arm for me and librarians everywhere in the country. When Obama became president, I felt that he knew something about our culture and I’ve continued to feel that way.
For someone of this stature, just advocating for issues that affect day-to-day practitioners is a great step towards legitimizing those concerns and getting traction for them in other arenas. Copyright, online discourse, scholarly communication, and public access to cultural content are all major areas where the Librarian of Congress could wield influence, not just passively maintain the status quo. Past Librarians have been active influencers, the next LoC could be one as well.
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. 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.
What else do you think we need from the Librarian of Congress? Write a response below.