Checked Out

The Library of Congress has let itself become obsolete. It needs a new leader who can steer it into the digital age.

Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress needs more than a respected scholar. It needs a visionary leader.

Photo by Alexey Rotanov/Shutterstock

Last month, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced that he will resign as of Jan. 1, 2016, after 28 years in office. Filling this vacancy may not seem like the most pressing matter before President Barack Obama, but in fact the decision is one that could help define his legacy. He has the opportunity to name a visionary leader who can nudge the nation toward a richer, more open information ecosystem appropriate for a democratic republic in the 21st century.

Traditionally, the Librarian of Congress has been an esteemed scholar who does not threaten conservative sensibilities. Billington is a revered historian of Russia. For much of his tenure, especially early on, he was regarded as a stable and effective advocate for the institution. But he never seemed to grasp the potential of digital media to expand the influence—and thus the value—of the library.

There is some push now to encourage Obama to appoint a professional librarian with administrative experience from one of America’s outstanding academic research libraries. But the library needs more than a respected scholar or librarian. It needs a visionary who can leverage the position to lead us through some essential upgrades and debates that could push this vital institution into public consciousness.

Thomas Jefferson reseeded the Library of Congress with his own impressive book collection after British troops burned the library and its 3,000 books in 1814. Over the ensuing 200 years, the library became a national treasure to researchers and tourists, a repository of our rich tradition of American publishing, and an essential resource for congressional staff. For more than a century, the library was fully stocked as the official copyright repository: You can’t register a copyright without submitting a work to the library. But as the collections have grown—they now include music, film, television, and radio recordings, as well as video games, software, and electronic records of Web publications—the library has increasingly depended on congressional appropriations to keep its operations going. And funding has been far below what the library needs to perform its functions of preserving all this material and making it available to the pubic.

The vast majority of copyrighted work never gets printed these days, let alone submitted to the Copyright Office, and fewer authors bother with registration. Thus the job of serving as the “library of record” becomes more challenging every year. The library has made cosmetic efforts to make itself relevant in an increasingly digital age—it now handles the entire archive of Twitter posts, for example—but it has no idea how to make such archives useful to researchers. Library leadership has been stuck in the same vinyl record groove for far too long. In March the Government Accountability Office issued a scathing report about Billington’s failures to manage the library in recent years, noting that the library has failed to upgrade basic services and technologies, failed to leverage its digital collections, and ceased being a leader among innovative libraries in the world.

The reality is that, despite its important role in American history, the library has never significantly touched the lives and minds of Americans across the country, as Jefferson hoped it would. But starting in 2016, it has that opportunity. The next leader of the library should start by fixing the problems that have been well documented in recent reports about mismanagement. And she must confront the embarrassing lack of resources devoted to digital preservation and exhibition. But merely solving technological and management problems would deny the United States a chance to extend the power of the library’s curated knowledge, enriching our own citizens and indeed the rest of the world.

Librarians have been enhancing our abilities to seek and judge knowledge for centuries, and their skills are more essential, not less, in the digital age. In just the past decade American librarians have fought for our right to access controversial materials. They have put their freedom on the line for our privacy and civil liberties. They have pushed for more reasonable copyright laws. At a moment when the ubiquity of “information” often renders us incapable of sifting the true from the false, they have helped us sort the relevant from the trivial and the authoritative from the salacious. That makes libraries and librarians more essential than ever. And they have done all this without coordination and leadership from the most important library in the world.

Imagine if, starting in 2016, the librarian of Congress were to launch two projects: One would push for solutions to important information policy issues. The librarian should use the power of the office to lead on questions of privacy, copyright, and access to knowledge. She should also be a voice of reason and erudition on these massively important issues that are evolving ever more quickly, and a non-partisan one—a representative of the people’s interests, not corporate ones. As a start to this process, the Library could convene a series of meetings of the major global leaders of digital companies, publishers, librarians, civil liberties groups, and security experts. Through these meetings, delegates could outline the challenges facing our global information ecosystem: Privacy and surveillance; copyright and free speech; and the potential for coordinating digital library resources across the globe.

So the first step would be to encourage, and focus, essential debates our democracy needs to be having about the future of information. The second major project would actually build something great. Beyond merely firing up long-delayed digitization projects like the Twitter archive (and lobbying for the necessary funds to do so), the librarian of Congress could lead the national effort to coordinate digital collections among state and local libraries. University and state libraries have engaged in uncoordinated, underfunded efforts to push their collections out to users in every corner of their communities. The Wisconsin Historical Society, for example, has undertaken an ambitious project on the 1964 Freedom Summer and another on Wisconsin residents who survived the Holocaust. But without strong leadership from the national library, these efforts have been too easy to ignore.  For the last few years an independent organization called the Digital Public Library of America has worked valiantly toward this goal. (Disclosure: I serve on the board of the Digital Public Library of America, but I do not speak for it; the opinions expressed here are my own). The DPLA has made great progress, but it would benefit greatly from greater leadership and support from the Library of Congress.

The librarian of Congress could also lead a global effort to coordinate digital standards, search protocols, and metadata standards among national libraries around the world. If such a global project were to come to fruition, it could go a long way toward erasing knowledge disparities between countries. A child growing up in Namibia might some day have the same information resources as one growing up in Canada. Such a global project, a Human Knowledge Project, could take decades to build. It would not be cheap or easy. But if we truly believe that more and better knowledge fosters better citizenship, better governance, and better fortunes, we can’t skimp. We also can’t wait.

President Obama came into office on the winds of the information revolution. His 2008 campaign harnessed social media like no campaign before or since. He was the first president personally savvy with digital media, as his Blackberry addiction attests. But after almost seven years in office, Obama has yet to leave his mark on our information ecosystem. The copyright system remains opaque and cumbersome, satisfying neither content producers nor users. Instead of fostering an informed debate over surveillance and privacy, the Obama administration defended secretive programs his predecessor installed and prosecuted many of the whistle blowers who have finally sparked a debate we should have had in 2002. His initiative to spread high-speed broadband to rural communities has stalled as Congress has declined to fund it adequately. Only Obama’s strong support of network neutrality has been embedded in policy, although it took six years and two FCC chairmen to get it done. So there is much work to be done. And the Library of Congress is the ideal place to start.

The next librarian of Congress could guide us through these and other thorny issues, coordinating and collaborating across government, industry, and civil society. But she would have to be an exceptional political leader with unusual powers of persuasion and unlimited patience. The next librarian of Congress should begin her term with a single guiding question: What sort of information ecosystem does this republic need in the 21st century? All policies and projects should flow from that.

The Library of Congress, like all the majestic libraries that connect our nation to its history and future, is a temple to the Enlightenment. But it’s more than that. It’s a site of discovery, deliberation, and imagination. Is reach has been too limited for too long. If the United States fails to lead the world as a model for how to connect citizens to the information they need, how can it claim lead in anything else?