Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Next "Librarian of Congress" Should Be a Librarian

This is the argument of Portland Community College librarian Meredeth Farkas in a piece at The New Republic.

Farkas chides outgoing Librarian of Congress James Billington for, among other things, not modernizing the Library and bringing it fully into the digital world.

She writes:

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...
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 beenwidely 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...
Read the entire article here.