Desiderata for the next Librarian of Congress

The current Librarian of Congress, James Billington, has announced that he will retire on 1 January 2016.  I wish him well – but I also think it’s past time for a change at LC.  Here are my thoughts on how that change should be embodied by Billington’s successor.

The next Librarian of Congress should embrace a vision of LC as the general national library of the United States and advocate for it being funded accordingly.  At present LC’s mission is expressed as:

The Library’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.

Of course, Congress should continue to have access to the best research resources available, and I think it important that LC qua research library remain grounded by serving that unique patron population – but LC’s mission should emphasize its services to everybody who find themselves in the U.S.:

The Library’s mission is to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people, present and future, and to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties.

Having LC be unapologetically and completely committed to being a national library first is risky.  For one thing, it means asking for more funding in a political climate that does not encourage such requests. By removing the fallback excuse of “LC is ultimately just Congress’ research library”, it also means that LC perforce cannot not evade its leadership responsibilities in the national and international library communities.

However, there are opportunities for a Library of Congress that sees its patron base as consisting of all who find themselves on U.S soil: even broader support than it enjoys now and the ability to act as a library of last resort when other institutions fail our memory.

The next Librarian of Congress should be willing and able to put LC’s technology programs back on track. This does not require that the next Librarian be a technologist. It certainly doesn’t require that they be uncritically enthusiastic about technology – but they must be informed, able to pick a good CIO, and able to see past puffery to envision where and how technology can support LC’s mission.

In particular, research and development in library and information technology is an area where the Library of Congress is uniquely able to marshal federal government resources, both to support its own collections and to provide tools that other libraries can use and build upon.

I wonder what the past 20 years or so would have been like if LC had considered technology and R&D worthy of strong leadership and investment. Would Linked Open Data – or even something better – have taken off ten years ago? Would there be more clarity in library software? What would have things been like had LC technologists been more free to experiment and take risks?

I hope that LC under Billington’s successor will give us a taste of what could have been, then surpass it.

The next Librarian of Congress should be a trained librarian or archivist. This isn’t about credentials per se – see Daniel Ransom piece on the “Real Librarians” of Congress – although possession of an MLS or an archivists’ certificate wouldn’t hurt.  Rather, I’d like to see candidates who are already participating in the professional discourse and who have informed opinions on library technology and libraries as community nuclei (and let’s shoot for the moon: who can speak intelligently on metadata issues!).

Of possibly more import: I hope to see candidates who embody library values, and who will help LC to resist the enclosure of the information commons.

What I would prefer not to see is the appointment of somebody whose sole professional credential is an MBA: the Library of Congress is not just another business to be run by a creature of the cult of the gormless general-purpose manager.  I think it would also be a mistake to appoint somebody who is only a scholar, no matter how distinguished: unlike the Poet Laureate, the Librarian of Congress has to see to the running of a large organization.

Finally, the next Librarian of Congress should not attain that position via the glass elevator.  There are plenty of folks who are not white men who can meet all of my desiderata – or any other reasonable set of desiderata short of walking on water – and I hope that the President will keep the demographics of the library profession (and those we serve!) in mind when making a choice.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Desiderata for the next Librarian of Congress by Galen Charlton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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