The Library of Congress has let itself become obsolete. It needs a new leader who can steer it into the digital age.
Last month, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced that he will resign as of Jan. 1, 2016, after 28 years in office. Filling this vacancy may not seem like the most pressing matter before President Barack Obama, but in fact the decision is one that could help define his legacy. He has the opportunity to name a visionary leader who can nudge the nation toward a richer, more open information ecosystem appropriate for a democratic republic in the 21stcentury.
Traditionally, the Librarian of Congress has been an esteemed scholar who does not threaten conservative sensibilities. Billington is a revered historian of Russia. For much of his tenure, especially early on, he was regarded as a stable and effective advocate for the institution. But he never seemed to grasp the potential of digital media to expand the influence—and thus the value—of the library.
There is some push now to encourage Obama to appoint a professional librarian with administrative experience from one of America’s outstanding academic research libraries. But the library needs more than a respected scholar or librarian. It needs a visionary who can leverage the position to lead us through some essential upgrades and debates that could push this vital institution into public consciousness.
Thomas Jefferson reseeded the Library of Congress with his own impressive book collection after British troops burned the library and its 3,000 books in 1814. Over the ensuing 200 years, the library became a national treasure to researchers and tourists, a repository of our rich tradition of American publishing, and an essential resource for congressional staff. For more than a century, the library was fully stocked as the official copyright repository: You can’t register a copyright without submitting a work to the library. But as the collections have grown—they now include music, film, television, and radio recordings, as well as video games, software, and electronic records of Web publications—the library has increasingly depended on congressional appropriations to keep its operations going. And funding has been far below what the library needs to perform its functions of preserving all this material and making it available to the pubic.