What Do We Want From the Next Librarian of Congress?

Library of Congress Librarian with Speaker of the House John Boehner.
Library of Congress Librarian with Speaker of the House John Boehner.

There’s a reason “librarians everywhere” were singled out for an EFF Pioneer award in 2000. Time and again, in fights against censorship and intrusive surveillance laws, librarians have been allies of the public, serving as the institutional representation of the ideals of intellectual freedom, unfettered speech, and reader privacy.

Users need allies like that in the federal government—and they now have a chance to get a new one. The position of Librarian of Congress—the United States’ top librarian role—has opened up for the first time in 28 years. President Obama should fill that spot with a candidate that has a strong record of supporting core library values and can help ensure that those values are fully realized in the digital age.

Unfortunately Dr. James Billington, who’s been in that office for nearly three decades, has not been that kind of librarian. He’s come under heavy criticism in recent years, in part because he has not provided the technical leadership to bring the library into the 21st century. That criticism is likely underscored by his personal technological preferences, such as communicating with his staff largely via fax.

A re-energized, 21st century Library under a new Librarian could do all kinds of practical good. For example:

  • It could redouble its efforts to digitize its collection and make it accessible online. The Library of Congress has an amazing collection, including vast stores of public domain works, but you still have to go to DC to explore most of it.
  • It could do a better job of overseeing and supporting the Copyright Office, which is responsible for maintaining records of copyright registrations and is an influential voice in the crafting, and even interpretation, of copyright policy. The Registrar has complained that she is not getting the resources she needs to modernize the Office, including long-overdue efforts to bring early Copyright Catalogs online. Some misguided legislators think that solution is to move the department altogether. That’s a bad idea, as we explain in another post: the Copyright Office belongs in a library. But it surely deserves the technological resources it needs to do its job.
  • It could improve access to the Congressional Research Service, which produces non-partisan informational reports for legislators. Those reports are tremendously valuable to the public, but they are only inconsistently available—there is no centralized public collection or catalog. As the New York Times notes, that is absurd. More broadly, the Librarian of Congress could serve as a zealous advocate for user’s rights. One important area for Librarian input is the rulemaking process for temporary exemptions to section 1201 of the DMCA—this is the process by which jailbreaking or unlocking cell phones gets temporary clearance, for example, and where we’re currently fighting to get new rules for repairing and modifying cars, bringing abandoned video games back online, ripping video streams, and more. The Copyright Office runs the rulemaking, and the Librarian generally, but not always, defers to its judgment. A Librarian that was engaged on users rights could be a much more active voice in that process.

The Librarian of Congress could also be our foremost advocate for libraries across the country. She could help shape an orphan works proposal that was responsive to the needs of the millions and millions of users of copyrighted works, not just a few influential rightsholders. The next Librarian of Congress could throw institutional support behind executive efforts to support encryption and privacy technologies.

Jessamyn West, the librarian whose Librarian of PROgress campaign has become a focal point for this discussion, has been a leading voice on what we can hope for in, to use her term, the #nextLoC. In a post last week, she laid out a wishlist of what she and other members of the library community would like to see.

As she notes, these priorities could certainly match those of somebody who already works in a library—perhaps unsurprisingly, the American Library Association too has advocated that President Obama nominate a professional librarian for the position. But they could also come from somebody who is simply passionate about users rights. Free speech, privacy, and intellectual freedom are core values of both EFF and librarians everywhere, and we can always use another well-placed advocate. We urge the president to choose one.

First published at Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, the content on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.