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A Big To-Do List for the New Librarian of Congress
Posted On September 27, 2016
Carla Hayden began her 10-year term as the 14th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 14, when she was sworn in during a well-attended ceremony at the Library of Congress’ (LC) Thomas Jefferson Building. It was a historic occasion for several reasons: Hayden is the first woman, the first African-American, and only the third librarian to hold the position—and it was the first Librarian of Congress swearing-in ceremony to be streamed on YouTube. Prior to being appointed, Hayden was the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system in Baltimore. While there, she oversaw the creation of multiple outreach services for citizens, including access to computers, afterschool programs for teens that feature homework assistance and college counseling, job information for adults, and an electronic library. She was also involved with the digitization of the library’s special collections.

Hayden succeeds James H. Billington, a scholar whose lack of digital know-how became a detriment to the LC’s ability to thrive in the digital age, leaving it with outdated IT systems and without a strategic directive and the strong leadership required to help it embrace and survive in an electronic environment. Handed these challenges, Hayden steps into the position of director of the world’s largest library, with a collection of more than 160 million works, a staff of 3,200, a budget of more than $620 million—and a historically mandated mission to serve Congress. On what should Hayden focus as she attempts to bring the LC into the 21st century?

Questions to Ask

Jim Matarazzo, dean and professor emeritus at Simmons College’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Toby Pearlstein, retired director of global information services at Bain & Co., both reference the need to assess the LC’s current responsibilities by asking three simple task-oriented questions: What are we doing now? What should we be doing? What can we stop doing? Additionally, they emphasize the importance of capturing information on the LC’s current userbase and analyzing the current staffers and staffing requirements. These efforts have already become two of Hayden’s initial priorities.

Hayden inherited a staff with low morale, as evidenced by a soon-to-be-released 2016 survey of federal employees that The Washington Post reports found “only 49 percent of staff said they had a ‘high level of respect’ for the library’s senior leaders and only 38% reported being satisfied with senior leadership’s practices.” Hayden plans to conduct informal meetings with staffers—perhaps a “coffee time with Carla”—to hear about their concerns, better understand the library’s history and its operations, and help them reach their full potential.

Work With Congress and the Public

The LC’s mission is “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people,” according to the 2014 “Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress.” In FY2014, it responded to more than 1 million reference requests from Congress, the public, and federal agencies. Congressional clients accessed online research products from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on more than 656,000 occasions. The LC had more than 1.45 million on-site visitors and 78.1 million visits to its web properties.

Given these statistics, it would seem that the LC is indeed fulfilling its role as a true national library as opposed to just supporting Congress. However, this is not always how it is generally perceived. Vika Zafrin, digital scholarship librarian at Boston University, would like to see “the Library of Congress become officially recognized as the United States National Library. This move would also send a clear signal that the United States values its national literary heritage and the pursuit of knowledge as well as make it easier to argue for funding it at the level a national library deserves. It is astonishing to me that this has not been part of our national rhetoric at this level; I think it would have a significant effect on the minds of the nation.”

Also under the jurisdiction of the LC and, consequently, of Hayden, is the CRS. Every year, this agency publishes about 1,000 reports covering general topics of interest to Congress (which owns these reports), and they are not readily available to the public. That means nobody at the CRS can distribute them to anyone outside Congress without permission, or, in some cases, without pretty hefty subscription fees. To make matters worse, there is no central repository housing the reports. According to Kevin Kosar, director of the R Street Institute’s Governance Project, “[T]here are CRS reports floating all over the Internet. By one count, there are 27,000 CRS reports scattered over 1,400 U.S. government websites.”

Fixing the accessibility of these reports should also be a priority. Taxpayers pay more than $100 million per year to fund CRS, so its reports should be made available to the public. This is troubling at best. Diane Peters, general counsel at Creative Commons, says, “Open up the Congressional Research Service. The Service’s reports should be made publicly available (and marked as in the public domain under CCO) and easy to search online. They should be made available at the same time they are provided to Congress, with all, normal caveats re: national security, privacy, etc.”

Make the LC a Digital Library Too

Digitizing precious material in the LC’s collection is another priority, one already acknowledged by Hayden, who plans to seek “corporate sponsorships and philanthropic contributions to aid these efforts,” according to The Washington Post. This may be more challenging than it seems. In 2014, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation surprised much of the world by announcing it would stop offering grants to libraries globally over the next few years. Even worse, also in 2014, the House of Representatives’ Committee on the Budget (then led by current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) recommended eliminating the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which is the primary source of federal funding to libraries. Both of these groups were also sources of funding for the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The LC is rumored to be planning to join the DPLA, and Hayden is a former board member.

However, it would seem to make more sense for Hayden to instead champion a national digital library endowment rather than simply pursuing private fundraising. David Rothman, founder of TeleRead, believes that “a full-fledged endowment, perhaps run in partnership with other organizations, could accomplish so much more. Rather than just confining itself to support for tech and content, [it] also could help pay for education, hiring and professional-development of public and school librarians for the digital era. …”

Another key question is where to start—or even end—the digitization process. What has already been completed? What should be completed immediately for preservation purposes? What would benefit users the most in digital form and format? During her swearing-in ceremony, Hayden mentioned Rosa Parks’ digitized letters and how they might now be read by a child in Wisconsin or on a Native American reservation. Her goal would be to tie these collections to school curricula all over the country, thereby integrating the knowledge and resources of the LC directly into children’s learning processes.

Ryan Merkley, Creative Commons’ CEO, suggests that Hayden could commit to making the LC as impressive online as it is in person: “Make the collection discoverable and accessible online, but also lead the government (and the country) in pushing for access. Create ‘D10N,’ the ‘digitization swat team,’ modelled after the hugely successful 18F, a team of over 100 open source consultants distributed all over the United States. This Federal agency is transforming the US government from the inside out, creating cultural change by working with teams inside agencies who want to create great services for the public based on Free and Open Source software. And send them into departments, institutions and agencies to unlock content, share best practices, and shift culture.”

Get Down to Business

Modernizing the U.S. Copyright Office is another key task for Hayden—albeit while retaining its current organizational structure in order to better balance the rights of the people with those of the large copyright industries.

Needless to say, Hayden will be busy regardless of where her imperatives begin. Skip Prichard, president and CEO of OCLC, sees her as a key change agent for the LC and librarians. “The Librarian of Congress has a powerful national—and international—platform. Dr. Hayden will use that platform to communicate the vital role that libraries are playing in our social and educational lives. I look forward to seeing strong leadership around key issues where our interests intersect with those of the Library of Congress and with the thousands of libraries we serve—the renovation of our bibliographic infrastructure in a linked data framework, the evolution of a national view of digitized collections, and the definition, management, and stewardship of the collective print scholarly record,” he says.

Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association (ALA), has no doubt that Hayden will be successful in moving the LC into the digital age and creating a true national resource for all Americans to use and enjoy. “Dr. Hayden is a people’s librarian, strong, relevant, and extremely capable of rearticulating the library’s importance of place,” she says. “We know that with Dr. Hayden at the helm, the Library of Congress will strengthen its ties with the nation’s libraries and other groups that influence how people access knowledge and information in the digital age. The Library is an extraordinary national and global resource and she will greatly expand its reach in the digital age.”

With Hayden in charge, the LC will no longer be the technological backwater it had been in the past. Already embracing digital technologies such as YouTube and Twitter (for which she now has her own account, @LibnOfCongress, with 17,000-plus followers), she says she is looking forward to digitally showcasing the LC’s collection. Hayden is well-positioned to finally share the nation’s treasures and successfully bring the LC into the digital age.

Corilee Christou is president of C2 Consulting, a firm that specializes in leveraging and licensing digital content of all types to traditional and internet-based companies using new and innovative business models.

Email Corilee Christou

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