Why You Should Care About The Next Librarian of Congress

By Library Director Christine Iaconeta

Professor Christine IaconetaThe Library of Congress was established in 1800 to provide the members of Congress with access to the information they needed to fulfill their law making duties.  The Librarian of Congress was established in 1802 and is appointed by the President and must be approved by the Senate.  The legislation contains nothing with regard to job requirements, and until recently, the post was for life. The Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015 changed this by imposing a ten year term on the position, with the possibility of reappointment. Sponsors of the bill point to the fast paced changes happening in libraries, technology, and the Copyright Office to support the move away from a lifetime appointment.

In June, 2015, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced his retirement after 28 years in the position. There was a great deal of speculation as to the qualifications for the next Librarian of Congress. Many argued the Library of Congress needed a visionary, someone to take the library into the digital age, asserting the failure to upgrade its technological infrastructure and manage its digital collections was Dr. Billigton’s greatest management misstep.  In fact, these criticisms were supported by the GAO in its report calling for leadership to address the library’s information technology management weaknesses.  Others argued the next person to run the Library of Congress should be a librarian, asserting the training, expertise, and experience will insure proper management and dissemination of the Library’s vast collection.

With the need to fill Justice Scalia’s seat on the United States Supreme Court, many may ask why they should care who will be the next Librarian of Congress. An examination of the Library of Congress’ 2016-2020 strategic plan will help answer this question.  The Library’s strategic plan contains seven core strategies, including but not limited to, the delivery of authoritative, authentic, and non-partisan research to the Congress; the acquisition, preservation and accessibility of a universal collection of knowledge; development of a modernized copyrights system; collaboration that stimulates and supports research and innovation; and a state of the art technology infrastructure.

Very few people realize that the United State Copyright Office is managed by the Librarian of Congress. As such this position plays an important role in determining the direction of this country’s copyright system. The Librarian of Congress has the power to provide exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that could further limit what consumers can do with their media, software, and digital devices, or they could ease copyright restrictions, and provide more access to federally funded research. Changes in the copyright system, whether it be more restrictive or less restrictive, will have drastic implications on most Americans and on the country’s economy. For, this reason alone, many people should be concerned about the person chosen to fill this position.

Another important aspect of the Library’s mission is to provide public access to the cultural history of the United States. This mission now involves preserving, digitizing, and accessing this information online. The Internet and other technological advances makes this information instantly accessible from anywhere in the world. Projects like the American Memory Project and Congress.gov (formerly THOMAS) began under Dr. Billington’s tenure.  However, there has been very little progress in this regard.  For example, the Library of Congress has not made Congressional Research Services reports available to the public.  Instead, a researcher must go to an outside organization, the Federation of American Scientist to access these materials. Nor has the Library been willing to collaborate with other leading organizations to support broader digital initiatives. Most notably is its unwillingness to participate in the Digital Public Library of America, which provides access to the digital collections of many public libraries, university archives and other cultural heritage institutions. As citizens in a democracy, we should have timely and reliable access to authenticated information. The Librarian of Congress is in a positon to make that happen by developing and advocating for policies that support digitization and access to government information.

Recently, President Obama announced Dr. Carla D. Hayden as his nominee to be the next Librarian of Congress, only the second professional librarian and the first women and first African-American to hold the position. Dr. Hayden is the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore.  Dr. Hayden’s background and experience makes her an excellent choice to move the Library of Congress into the twenty-first century. She has a great understanding of libraries, including the integration of technology into the library environment.

The Library of Congress houses the cultural history of the United States and should be easily accessible to its citizens.  However, only a small fraction of that material is digitized and accessible online. Furthermore, as the manager of the United States Copyright Office, the Librarian of Congress is very influential in shaping copyright policy, policies that have vast ramifications on many aspects of our cultural and commercial well-being. The importance of the Librarian of Congress cannot be underestimated. It behooves the President to choose wisely and President Obama has done that with his choice.