This summer, after several stories in The Washington Post about widespread negligence and a lack of support for various information-technology initiatives, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, announced he would resign his position. Billington had been appointed into the position by President Reagan, and his resignation allowed the chance for President Obama to make the newest choice for Librarian of Congress in almost 30 years.
This opening provides President Obama with an opportunity that will help define his legacy, because as Billington just proved, a choice for Librarian of Congress can be one a president’s lasting legacies in terms of personnel in Washington. As one of our most intellectual post-WWII presidents, Obama has been more thoughtful and open on who to consider for the job running the world’s biggest (and perhaps most important?) library. The list of people he’s apparently considering for the job include writer Walter Isaacson (who has removed himself from consideration); Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive; David Ferriero, the current Archivist of the United States; and various university presidents and librarians of other prominent libraries.
But more so than famous names and flash credentials, something Obama needs to consider is leadership, leadership with a vision that can and will take the Library out of a long funk and towards a bright and beautiful future.
Billington, for all the good that he did in the first half of his tenure (including the creation of the National Film Registry, the creation of the program called THOMAS which includes the complete online historical records of the US Congress, as well as doubling the size of the Library), earned a reputation for negligence in the latter half of his career. Earlier this year, Billington was called out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for what The Washington Post called a “lack of leadership.” According to Politico, "The Library has, under Billington,struggled to meet its technology needs, such as digitizing the nation's cultural archives and supporting the U.S. Copyright Office, which is housed at the Library and is at the center of debates between the tech and entertainment industries about digital content.”
Among the things The Washington Post said in their coverage of the GAO’s report is that it “reveals a work environment lacking central oversight and faults Librarian of Congress James H. Billington for ignoring repeated calls to hire a chief information officer, as required by law… [it also] reveal[s] library mismanagement costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and outdated and inefficient systems in the U.S. Copyright Office. And despite the library’s reputation as an early Internet pioneer, various reports have found that it hasn’t kept up with the rapidly evolving digital times.”
In fact, Billington’s reluctance to hire a head of IT development for the Library can be traced back to the year 2000, when the National Academy of Science suggested he do so only for the suggestion to fall on deaf ears. The New York Times reported that in addition to concerns about copyright and digital initiatives, “in a 2013 audit, the library’s inspector general warned that millions of items, some from as far back as the 1980s, remained piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world.” The Times also reported that "in interviews [with] current and former library employees and others who have worked with Dr. Billington over the decades say they no longer recognize the charismatic, energetic librarian they once knew. They say he has slowed down so much that he rarely comes in before noon or works a full week in his majestic office overlooking Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. Co-workers say that he does not use email and that they often communicate with him through a fax machine at his house.”
Perhaps more controversially, Billington became more known for swanky parties and jet-setting vacations due to his relationship and association with the James Madison Council, an organization he helped to found to help finance and support the Library. According to another Washington Post article, Maureen Moore, a former employee of Billington’s at the Library, said “[Billington] likes to associate with rich and famous people,” and that to her knowledge, the James Madison Council “never put money toward anything useful.” When it was announced that Billington would retire this summer, Moore said “It’s a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn’t.But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn’t a librarian, someone who doesn’t have management experience or another megalomaniac.”
So, now we stand at the crossroads, anticipating Obama’s decision for who will lead the Library. But I think there are larger issues at play. Politico recently published an article with the provocative headline "Can Anyone Save the Library of Congress?" I think, because of everything I pointed out, credentials and experience doesn’t matter as the one thing Billington seemingly didn’t have towards the end of his run as Librarian: passion. Billington’s widespread mismanagement and negligence not only is cause for concern, it can well be said that it hindered the progress of bringing the Library into the 21st century and the digital age. It shows a flippancy to which the actual texts the Library owns are disregarded and unavailable to the public who supports the Library through taxpayer dollars. It is an outrage that a federal institution was allowed to fall for so low simply to satisfy one Librarian’s longevity in the position. Having a Librarian who seems qualified is only step one. We need a Librarian who actually takes his position seriously, and uses this opportunity given to him or her not just merely as the top step of the corporate ladder of academia and federal cultural institutions, but to leave the Library better than when they found it, which, given the information out there right now, one might be reluctant to say of Billington. Having a leader who is actually passionate about the Library can help restore the former grandeur of the institution, as well as bringing it to where it needs to be so that it, and the United States as a whole, can stay competitive in a rapidly-changing intellectual and technological environment.
So, President Obama is interested in university presidents and more tech-oriented people. I don’t doubt his and his administration’s ability to choose someone well-qualified for the job. But more important than that is the question of whether they can care for the Library to the extent that it needs to be cared for after the negligence of its previous leader.