Hiring: The First Librarian of Congress for the Internet Age

f11photo/Shutterstock.com

Experts say a new librarian should digitize more works, raise more money—and use email.

In a month or six, the United States will get its first new Librarian of Congress in nearly three decades. The current librarian, James Billington, has held the title since his appointment by President Reagan in 1987. Though named by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Librarian doesn’t change with every new White House. After being appointed, Librarians are free to serve as long as they want—that’s why there have been only 13 of them since 1802.

In other words, this will be the first time a new Librarian has been appointed since the invention of the web.

The Librarian is a surprisingly powerful role. In addition to claiming one of the best titles in government (though The Atlantic’s staff is split on whether “Senate Sergeant-at-Arms” or “U.S. Chief Justice” trump it), the new Librarian assumes considerable powers. This person will not only run the largest library in the world, with thousands of staff of its own, but also oversee the Copyright Office, the department which manages the U.S. copyright system. This gives them the power to declare what constitutes a copyright violation and what doesn’t.

And the new Librarian could hold a potentially transformative role: They could be the first Librarian, many experts say, to truly embrace the Internet as core to the Library’s mission. For although Billington sometimes used the web in innovative projects like Thomas.gov—a source of Congressional information online—the last decade had been marked by less expansion.

So what would this new, more digitized Library look like? Experts outlined a number of areas to focus on.

The first step, many said, would be for the Library to digitize more of its collections.

“Dr. Billington and everyone at the Library made some great progress in the ’90s in terms of scanning some of their collections, but it’s only a fraction of what’s there,” said Dan Cohen, director of the Digital Public Library of America.

“Digitization is not the only thing,” he said, but it would help bring the Library’s 160 million items “to many more people than who are able to visit the three buildings” in Washington, D.C.

The Library has already shown a willingness to digitize some of its holdings. It says it now has 52 million primary sources online. Thirty million of those are book pages, and more than 10 million of those are newspaper pages. Its print and photos collection, which exceeds 1.1 million items, is a treasure. (In fact, it inspires this superb Twitter account.) And the Library has also absorbed other institution’s important digital archives, including the complete Twitter archive and the September 11 digital archive.

But those numbers pale against other efforts. HathiTrust, a consortium of  university research libraries that have digitized their holdings, claims to have more than 4.7 billion pages digitized, from 13 million total volumes.  

And the last decade has seen other kinds of digital library innovation. Google Books and the Digital Public Library of America itself both allow different ways of interacting with digitized materials en masse, something the Library of Congress does not. (In 2013, Google Books even secured a legal ruling that found its technology counted as fair use—which now means that any institution, including the Library of Congress, can run a full-text corpus ngram search of digitized materials.) The New York Public Library has experimented with the civic and scholastic benefits of combining digitization and crowdsourcing with its Building Inspector, which lets web users identify old buildings on old, scanned maps.

Other libraries have tried to refocus on who their audience is in the first place. In Australia, the national library operates Trovea big, searchable portal of every digitized book, image, document, and newspaper. Europeana, a similar institution which lets web users search across Europe’s digitized collections, is funded in part by the EU. And the Cooper Hewitt, the Smithsonian’s design museum (and therefore another research arm of the federal government), has begun a project of assigning every object in its collection a permanent URL.

“What ‘digital’ in the museum means is really that everything is available whenever you want. Wherever you want, whenever, however,” Seb Chan, the director of Cooper Hewitt’s Labs department, told me last year.

Jessamyn West, a trained librarian who also worked as the chief operating officer for the legendary Internet community Metafilter, told me that the Library could “model better sharing.”

The Library, she said, regularly prepares reports for members of Congress on topics like terrorismnuclear weapons, and the Middle East, as part of its Congressional Research Service. Although these reports belong to the public, they’re not made available directly. Right now, the Federation of American Scientists, a third-party advocacy organization, requests the reports via a member of Congress and then archives them on its website. But these are the people’s reports, and there’s no reason, said West, that the Library of Congress couldn’t publish them themselves.

That project would not “require millions of dollars and a team of thousands,” she says. “It’s just flipping a switch and saying, these are now available.”

Indeed, a lot of what a new Librarian could do seems straightforward, as it would return the institution to a baseline level of technical competence. The new Librarian could appoint a permanent chief information officer, something the Government Accountability Office has begged it to do. (The library has churned through five temporary CIOs in the last three years.) It could invest staff and funding in clearing its backlog of books that have yet to even be cataloged, which the GAO says goes back to the 1980s.

“You’re inheriting a legacy of 15 years, 20 years, of—the most charitable way to term it is—benign neglect,” says West.

That abstention led to other institutions trying to fill the leadership gap—like the Digital Public Library of America itself, which has unified local and state public libraries into a single, searchable online interface with a robust application-programming interface. West said that the work of the Digital Public Library of America and HathiTrust should have been done by the Library of Congress. (Cohen said that, by nature of being young and small, the DPLA was able to act more with more agility than the Library of Congress.)

A spokeswoman for the Library says that it has aggressively digitized its holdings, but that it also has many responsibilities.

“Of course the Library would like to do more of a lot of things, but there are resource realities, and there is a broad mission. The Library’s mission is not one-dimensional. We acquire materials, preserve materials, catalog materials so they are accessible, as well as digitize and put them online,” said Gayle Osterberg, a Library spokeswoman, in an email.

In some ways, the new Librarian might only prod—and not drive—the Library’s digital future. Billington, for all his faults, was politically popular. (Congressmen practically fall over themselves to praise him in The New York Times’s otherwise fairly negative coverage of his resignation.)

Billington was also a good fundraiser—perhaps the most important job of any big institutional leader. In 2007, he secured a private gift of $150 million, the library’s largest ever, to build a new campus for audio-visual materials in Virginia. West credited him with successfully bringing in funds for the library’s special exhibits and projects.

Since the announcement last week, the American library community has debated who the new Librarian should be. A White House petition signed by more than 1,400 calls for an appointee who more accurately “represents librarianship.”

“For the last 61 years, the Librarian of Congress appointee has not been a librarian. For as long as the position has existed, there has never been a Librarian of Congress appointee that is not a white man,” the petition says.

Other librarians have pushed for further changes. The Library of Congress is technically an agency operated by the U.S. Congress and not otherwise connected to the United States. Erin Leach, a librarian in Athens, Georgia, argues that it should now formally become the country’s national library.

West had smaller goals for the next librarian. Her ideal candidate, she said, would be “charismatic, diplomatic, [understand] the web, and could have a bunch of people working for them who could actually get the nitty-gritty stuff done.”

Indeed, she said, one of the best things a new Librarian could do would be to just raise money and get out of the way. Or the Library could start by getting its most senior leadership on email. According to The TimesBillington rejected the technology, preferring to communicate with staff off-hours via a fax machine at his home.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.