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The Next Librarian of Congress Should Be an Actual Librarian


Most Americans probably weren’t aware that James H. Billington, who had served as Librarian of Congress for the past 28 years, resigned his position at the venerable institution on September 30. A Reagan appointee, Billington came into office before the advent of the World Wide Web and the sweeping changes of the information age. While Billington was a brilliant fundraiser who made vital contributions to the Library of Congress, his tenure was marred by significant mismanagement, for which he was criticized by a number of government watchdogs including a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office in March.

President Obama will soon appoint a new Librarian of Congress, a position that requires Congressional approval and could impact the everyday lives of most Americans. This position has the power to provide exemptions to a copyright regime that currently limits what consumers can do with their media, software, digital devices, and even vehicles. The next Librarian of Congress could ease copyright restrictions, provide improved access to federally-funded research, and embrace cooperative efforts toward making our nation’s history available online. On the other hand, the new Librarian could limit what Americans can do with the content and technologies they have lawfully purchased by choosing not to make exemptions to copyright law. It all hinges on the values and background of the person the President chooses to appoint.

In a 2014 speech, former Deputy and now Acting Librarian of Congress, David Mao stated that the Library of Congress is “the de-facto national library of the United States and so... it’s actually your library.” Over the past few decades, public access to the Library of Congress has increased and the Library has carved out a role in preserving, digitizing, and making accessible the cultural history of the United States. Projects like American Memory (begun in 1990) and THOMAS (begun in 1995) were early trailblazers in providing historical artifacts and legislative information on the Web.

In the two decades since the birth of those projects, however, digital initiatives at universities, cultural institutions, other national libraries, and Google have eclipsed the work of the Library of Congress in terms of both scale and design. Although programs like their newspaper digitization initiative, Chronicling America, have great value, only a very small proportion of their collection has been made available to the public online. The Library of Congress has also been notably unwilling to participate in major cooperative digital library initiatives, including the Digital Public Library of America, which has brought together the digital collections of public libraries, university archives, and diverse cultural heritage institutions, including the National Archives and the Smithsonian.

At other times in the institution’s history, librarians looked to the Library of Congress and its Librarian for leadership and example, but under Billington, the Library of Congress became increasingly distant from the library community. Billington’s lack of participation in the Digital Public Library of America suggests he did not see his agency as a true national library. Someone with a broader vision of the role of the Library of Congress could provide vision and leadership to libraries across the country. They could advocate on issues many libraries support, like intellectual freedom and open access to information. They could partner with libraries and other cultural heritage institutions on digital library initiatives and provide valuable resources and expertise. Instead of tentatively embracing the digital revolution, as they did under Billington, they could be leaders in digitization and the preservation of digital materials.

The Librarian of Congress’s role in overseeing the Copyright Office gives them significant power over copyright policy that impacts the use of media and electronic devices in our everyday lives. Every three years, the Librarian of Congress determines exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which criminalizes any circumvention of digital rights management, even for uses that do not violate copyright. This provision in the law was made so DMCA could keep up with technological and market changes.

Billington made important exemptions that supported the duplication, remixing, and use of copyrighted works, but also refused to make others. For instance, he was instrumental in making it illegal for individuals to jailbreak their legally-purchased tablets and video game consoles, moves that were widely criticized. "The new batch of exemptions illustrate the fundamentally arbitrary nature of the DMCA's exemption process," wrote Ars Technica’s Timothy B. Lee in 2012. "For the next three years, you'll be allowed to jailbreak smartphones but not tablet computers. You'll be able to unlock phones purchased before January 2013 but not phones purchased after that. It will be legal to rip DVDs to use an excerpt in a documentary, but not to play it on your iPad. None of these distinctions makes very much sense.” Though Lee acknowledges that “Congress probably deserves more blame” than Billington, a Librarian of Congress with a strong understanding of technological trends, copyright, and real-life use cases could properly support the Copyright Office and, through DMCA exemptions, help bring copyright law into the digital age.

Since 1987, there have been significant changes in publishing and while alternative models, such as open access publishing and open educational resources have grown tremendously, the Library of Congress has not kept pace. The Obama Administration has expressed its support for providing open access to federally-funded research, yet the Library of Congress still has not made Congressional Research Reports publicly available. Instead, outside organizations like the Federation of American Scientists make them available through records requests. The next Librarian of Congress could make these and other resources available to the public and use the position to advocate for opening up more taxpayer-funded content to the public. Open access to research provides every American with equal access to knowledge, and can increase the impact of research, improve quality of care in medicine, and encourage innovation in science and technology.

Commentators, industry groups, and advocacy organizations have written open letters to President Obama about what sort of individual the next Librarian of Congress should be. The last two Librarians of Congress have been academics; Politico reported last month that Walter Isaacson had been under consideration but was not interested in the post, suggesting that the Obama Administration might favor another academic or writer, rather than a seasoned library or university administrator.

A public intellectual would likely be an easy sell to Congress as Billington was beloved by members of Congress even as they criticized his Library. The next Librarian of Congress, however, needs to not only be well-credentialed, but someone who can run a very large and complex agency of over 3,000 employees. They will step into an organization that has been widely criticized for mismanagement. They will need to know when to lead, delegate, collaborate, or gracefully get out of the way. They will not only need to bring the Library of Congress into the 21st century, but they will have to administer a large institution that has been poorly run for decades.

Many in the library world are advocating for a fellow librarian to be appointed Librarian of Congress. A librarian could be expected to capably administer the Library of Congress, which serves many of the same functions as an academic library, albeit on a much grander scale. There are many distinguished and innovative librarians who have successfully run large, complex organizations and are well-versed in issues related to scholarly publishing, copyright, digitization, technology trends, and fundraising. However, the next Librarian of Congress could still embody and support the values librarians hold dear, whether she or he is a librarian, a scholar, a university administrator, or a software executive.

The next Librarian of Congress could do a great deal to benefit the American people and libraries, maintain the status quo, or increase restrictions on technology users. Copyright is deeply in need of reform to support creativity and end-user digital rights, and both the movements toward open government and a national digital library would benefit from the support and leadership of the Librarian of Congress. Whether the Library of Congress ends up with a visionary leader, a conservative supporter of business and the status quo, or a public intellectual without demonstrated managerial skills depends on whether President Obama sees this position as a vital part of his legacy and wants to expend the political capital to appoint someone who embodies open government and data, equality of access to information, and a commitment to a 21st century digital infrastructure.