After nearly 28 years of service, Librarian of Congress James Hadley Billington announced his retirement on June 10, 2015, which becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2016. President Barack Obama is tasked with finding a replacement, who will then need to be confirmed by the Senate. The Library of Congress (LC) currently consists of three separate entities: the library itself (which includes the Office of the Librarian, the Library Services department, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, the Law Library of Congress, and the Office of Support Operations), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and the U.S. Copyright Office.
There is no doubt that Billington is a scholar of the highest order. As Maria Pallante, the register of copyrights and director of the Copyright Office, shares, “Jim Billington is a talented intellectual. I have always found him to be genuinely motivated by both people and ideas, interested in discussing not only his own scholarly interests but also the intellectual and professional expertise of others.” During the early years of his tenure, Billington certainly had several successes, as a timeline of his career milestones illustrates, but the advent of the World Wide Web (and the technological advances it provided to society) were just not in his wheelhouse. Simply put, he doesn’t use email—he prefers to take messages via fax.
The LC’s Inefficiencies
Billington’s retirement couldn’t have come at a better time. On March 31, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report determined that the LC had no “clear direction for its use of IT,” with weaknesses across several areas that impact the library’s effectiveness. Billington had been repeatedly tasked to hire a permanent CIO, a position required by law, which has remained open since 2012.
In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on the continued viability of maintaining the current structure in which the Copyright Office reports into the LC. Several congressional representatives supported creating an independent executive-level agency for the office, thereby ensuring it would no longer be dependent on IT inefficiencies created and fostered by the library. Hoping to reinforce the severance of the Copyright Office from the LC, Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.) introduced the Copyright Office for the Digital Economy (CODE) Act bill on June 4.
Additionally, a 2013 evaluation by the LC’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that there are currently millions of items, some dating from 1980s, “piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world,” according to The New York Times.
However, Billington was excellent at finding money to support the library, raising several billion dollars during his tenure. He also established several key programs—including the Library of Congress National Book Festival (with former first lady Laura Bush, a cultural event that has brought more than 1 million visitors to Washington, D.C.) and the American Memory project, a program that initially made photographs and primary materials available to teachers via CD-ROM to help with learning and literacy. Out of this came the National Digital Library Program. In 1995, he and Congress created THOMAS.gov (now Congress.gov), a searchable online system for bills, floor schedules, and committee information.
The Best Candidate for Billington’s Role
But it’s time to move on and finally hire, first and foremost, a Librarian of Congress with the appropriate library degree and experience. Courtney Young, president of the American Library Association (ALA), is calling for a Billington successor with expertise in such areas as management, leadership, communications, and marketing. Given the shortcomings of today’s LC, the new librarian also must possess several additional skills.
The appointee should be an innovative, flexible, and forward-thinking leader who oversees the public face of the library and will lead an enthusiastic group of reference, instruction, and access services librarians in developing and delivering cutting-edge library services and technologies. Furthermore, the librarian should understand technology thoroughly and embrace its ability to engage the community, as well as be prepared to address technology as it morphs during the next several decades. He or she should be adept at fundraising and a “people person” who inspires donors along with staffers and colleagues.
Focusing on literacy is key to the education of today’s youth, and the librarian must develop ways to enhance and create programs that promote literacy for the K–12 student population. Introducing children to a variety of books has to be a priority. Moreover, let’s not forget that although the LC fills a public role to help advance and preserve public knowledge, it must first meet the needs of Congress, ensuring that the legislative body always has the most up-to-date and accurate information available.
Is this asking too much? No, not at all, especially when one considers that this person will be the public face of the world’s largest, and possibly most well-known, library. Let’s just hope President Obama understands the importance and significance of this appointment.