A New Librarian of Congress
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a librarian of Congress under President Abraham Lincoln, referred to his charge as the “book palace” of the American people. Others have called it a “cathedral to the written word.” The first librarian of Congress appointed in the 21st century faces the challenge of retaining the global significance of an institution born of the printing press in an increasingly digital environment.
A far cry from its foundational collection of Thomas Jefferson’s books and manuscripts, the modern Library of Congress (LOC) serves several publics simultaneously. As the library of the United States Congress, it assists the nation’s lawmakers, whose staffs regularly conduct research in its vast collections. As the American people’s library, the LOC maintains the registry of copyrights on all volumes published in the United States; opens its doors daily to all American adults and many high school students engaged in research; maintains and makes available to readers an unequaled collection of print and digital materials in more than 400 languages; provides essential resources to the executive and legislative branches of the federal government; and provides a venue in the nation’s capital for the conduct and presentation of scholarly research at the highest levels. It is a national institution with global influence.
The Library of Congress faces challenges in the 21st century that demand substantial organizational and technological expertise and a commitment to building universal digital collections for future generations of scholars and researchers. While the legacy collections make up the largest compendium of recorded knowledge in the world, virtual visitors greatly outnumber the library’s physical visitors. The call to make more collections electronically accessible will only increase. The librarian’s responsibilities must include balancing the imperatives and opportunities of digital innovation with an appreciation of the LOC’s central role in acquiring and preserving printed scholarship, including scholarship treating the history of the book. The librarian of Congress need not possess specific expertise in that history, nor in the technology that has transformed contemporary libraries; however, effective leadership demands recognition of technological solutions to the library’s challenges, an ability and willingness to set priorities, and a consultative management style that allows those expert in technological innovation to serve the library well, engaging its challenges in a manner that maximizes their contributions and elicits their institutional commitment and loyalty.
The same qualities that apply to technological innovation apply to every aspect of LOC management. Fresh leadership at the top must be prepared to hire others equally committed to implementing change while exercising leadership in a collaborative style that respects long-time staff and encourages shared priorities. The librarian of Congress must recognize that innovative technology and sound management nurture scholarship and service but are not ends in themselves.
Effectively navigating the library’s complex relationship with Congress requires a librarian politically adept and of sufficient public stature to secure resources for the library and command respect for it among competing congressional—and national—priorities. The librarian represents American public culture and scholarship globally, and must be an effective spokesperson for the value of lifelong learning and reading for all, as well as the importance of historical knowledge in the construction of public policy.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) is central to the LOC’s mission. Members of Congress and their staff rely on the quality of CRS research, and the public relies upon its intelligence and nonpartisanship. The new librarian must address the tension between Congress’s concern with confidentiality and the public’s interest in transparency. Access to the library’s treasures—including such rich collections as the papers of Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, Elliott Richardson, and an impressive array of military leaders—are currently impeded by security reviews, which must be expedited. To balance dual priorities of protecting individual creators and making their works readily available to the public requires a librarian who understands the LOC’s role in administering the copyright law of the United States, which offers great protection to Americans’ creativity and freedom of expressiononly when its administration is efficient and responsive to changing forms of publication.
The Library of Congress is but a node, albeit a critical one, in the ecosystem of library resources. Now is the time to build connections that will allow researchers to navigate the entire ecosystem to find the resources they need to create new knowledge, recognizing that the multidisciplinary nature of LOC collections requires an expansive approach to their dissemination. The librarian must encourage and model the spirit of collaboration lying at the heart of LOC’s orientation to the borders that separate one federal agency from another as well as the international boundaries that all great cultural institutions transcend.
James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. Alan Kraut is past president of the Organization of American Historians and professor of history at American University.
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