Librarian of Progress
July 1, 2015 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Should the next Librarian of Congress be the Librarian of Progress?

James Billington, the current Librarian of Congress, has announced that he will retire in January of 2016. Billington's legacy is mixed, with recent news stories pointing out problems with LoC's information technology strategy. Others point out that Billington does not use email. The director of the U.S. Copyright Office (which is part of LoC) is fed up and wants to declare independence. The Library of Congress Professional Guild is not very happy either [PDF]. The Congressional Research Service, yet another arm of the LoC has its troubles as well.

There have been thirteen Librarians of Congress, not all of whom have been "real librarians" ‐ though the American Librarian Association has asked President Obama to pick a trained librarian, reversing the recent trend of hiring scholars in unrelated fields.

Whoever the next Librarian of Congress is, the todo list is long – as is the question of deciding what LoC should be:
It's difficult to be such a longstanding institution with many different mandates to preserve and share the intellectual content of this complex nation. However the LoC should consider moving on from being just a federal library supporting Congress and the Copyright office and treasured historical artifacts, and becoming part of the national conversation on preservation and access of all countries' cultural heritage.
[by MetaFilter's own jessamyn via mefi projects]
posted by metaquarry (33 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Aw, heck. You twisted my arm. I'll do it.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 10:43 AM on July 1, 2015

Oh, please. Like jessamyn isn't the only real choice anyway.
posted by Etrigan at 10:47 AM on July 1, 2015 [29 favorites]

I bet it would burn real good.

Just saying.

I mean, why wait for an invading army to do it?
posted by clvrmnky at 11:02 AM on July 1, 2015

Can't we just make jessamyn Mod-Empress of All The Libraries Librarian of Congress? Ok glad that's settled.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 11:02 AM on July 1, 2015 [8 favorites]

related from NPR
posted by djseafood at 11:07 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

There is a certain bitter irony when if you try to view this at LC.
posted by adamsc at 11:15 AM on July 1, 2015 [11 favorites]

Chris, you're slacking on Slack and on MeFi? :)
posted by numaner at 11:59 AM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

This IS where we organize to get Jessamyn West the job, isn't it? Because as many challenges as it may have, it couldn't be as hard as Moderating MeFi, right? (Although her website on the subject does kind of remind me of way back when George Bush Jr. hired Dick Cheney to find him a running mate and he picked himself... except NOT EVIL)
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:02 PM on July 1, 2015

Adamsc, that error page neatly encapsulates all the things that are currently wrong with the Library of Congress residing somewhere in the 1980s, technologically. James Billington's legacy at the Library of Congres is not "mixed," it is a tenure of total neglect during the fastest accelerating change in information technology in human history.

It is long past time to stop putting political appointees in the Librarian of Congress position. There are many highly qualified librarians in this country. Choose someone qualified for a change, and let the Library of Congress enter the 21st century.
posted by Atrahasis at 12:03 PM on July 1, 2015

To be fair, that error page is pretty common around here, and relatively a recent phenomenon. The service that LoC use for site categorization is woefully harsh and to err on the side of caution everything that is "Uncategorized" gets blocked. We can request each specific domain to be categorized or re-categorized and get it unblocked. That security service was put in place maybe 5 years ago, which is infancy in terms of government timelines.

We ingest a lot of material from the way back machine, and a lot of the sites from there are also uncategorized.
posted by numaner at 12:10 PM on July 1, 2015

There is a certain bitter irony when if you try to view this at LC.


Folks! I do not want this job! I am not qualified for this job! It's super nice that people have been saying that about me and a bunch of other unqualified people (MeFi's own jscott frex) and I think I am taking those suggestions in the manner they were intended but I think it's also time to get pragmatic. This is an important job that shapes a lot of library culture just by the things the Librarian does (or does not) do. Billington was an old school pol and a historian and did a great job raising money and doing ... history stuff. I think he helped LoC brand itself as something important and scholarly and that sort of thing. That was good. However, he was also by many accounts a micromanaging luddite jerk and that also helped shape the LC culture. Libraries can be (and are in many cases) amazing places where culture is shared, created, curated and preserved. This is what I want to see the LoC doing in my dream world and I am sure other people, librarian and not, have their own dreams about this sort of thing.

Seriously, I could not handle the hours or the amount of gladhanding and politicking that would need to be done but there are capable experienced people from within library culture who would be good at this job and we should be encouraging a discussion about who those people might be and who might be more of the same stuff as Billington and maybe not such a good choice.

you're slacking on Slack and on MeFi?

You have confused me with mathowie!

posted by jessamyn at 12:47 PM on July 1, 2015 [23 favorites]

numaner: cloud deployment is the new compiling.

Atrahasis: as one of those people trying to modernize IT, it's a bit more complicated than “total neglect”. Billington has had big ideas and made some interesting things to happen early on but those really need to be paired with a culture of delegation and the boring but essential work of efficient operations. If you've ever worked at a large company with a visionary CEO, the situation's pretty similar – everything depends on whether there's a deputy, COO, etc. who can reliably keep the non-marquee projects moving smoothly and provide a stable foundation for those big projects.

On edit: I'd agree with Jessamyn about the job – it's an odd blend of public intellectual, high-level political relations and overseeing an organization with rather widely varied responsibilities (very incomplete list), thousands of employees and a $600M annual budget. I don't know Jessamyn in person but from her public writing, I think she'd be much better suited for a CTO-style role thinking about the future of libraries and what a particularly large library with a national mission could do to help.
posted by adamsc at 1:14 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Progress or Congress? I can see the pros and cons.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:19 PM on July 1, 2015

Yes? I'm going to say yes.

Above all, s/he needs to be someone that is able and willing to oversee the hiring of talented people, to delegate effectively, and to trust them to do their jobs. The CIO issue aside, it sounds like a huge amount of what had driven LOC off the rails in the last ~20 years is shit quality micromanaging from the highest levels, while important aspects of the Library's mission go unattended to.

Talking to friends that work there, Billington's tenure has also broken the spirit of many long-time Library employees and created a very disfunctional work culture. I'd like to see the incoming Librarian address this plainly and directly, and have a plan to start rebuilding trust, belief in the institution's mission, and a sense that you don't have to dread coming to work.
posted by ryanshepard at 1:24 PM on July 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

To say that this retirement has created a lot of celebratory dancing in the data transparency crowd would be to describe the Atlantic Ocean as "a bit damp." Which doesn't necessarily mean they have much hope for the next occupant, but I have been hearing grumping about Billington for as long as I have been working in this arena.

Dan Schulman had a piece in Medium about traits for the next head honcho.
posted by phearlez at 1:35 PM on July 1, 2015

Adamsc, I get your point. It's pretty clear that Billington did not think information technology was sufficiently important to delegate to someone who understood it. I have worked in organizations where lip service is paid to a concept but no resources are dedicated to executing, and the result is much like the LoC is experiencing. I guess I am comfortable calling that neglect.
posted by Atrahasis at 2:37 PM on July 1, 2015

Folks! I do not want this job! I am not qualified for this job!

People who say that are the only ones I bloody well want in jobs like these.
posted by Etrigan at 3:27 PM on July 1, 2015 [10 favorites]

Can I ask, as a clueless Englishman, why this position is a "life term"? I can sort-of see why the Supreme Court judges are, as in theory they would accumulate relevant knowledge over time and get better at their judgements (yes, I know Scalia contradicts that but ... derail, no). But POTUS is term-limited to two four year terms, then bye (which, seeing how worn out Obama looks, I'm kinda glad).

But the outgoing LoC was in post from 1987 onwards. That's 28(!!!) years - he took the helm several years before Gopher and the Web, and when Reagan was POTUS, it's that long ago. Strikes me that with the rapid takeup of tech in libraries, and tech that may compete with libraries (in mass perception if not in reality), and the constant fight to position and keep libraries in the centre of various socio-educational spheres, and keeping the Library of Congress ticking over from day to day, and the constant fight for libraries to retain funding in these times of austerity, and doing all the politics and stuff that comes with the job - even with skillful delegation, to do this well and effectively is an intense "burnout" job.

So, why is it that the Librarian can stay in this strange tenure-like position until they either quit or, well, basically, their maker calls them?
posted by Wordshore at 8:20 PM on July 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Also, of the names being mentioned in various places so far, I am pleased to see Sarah Thomas (who has previously worked in the Library of Congress, and who did a good job as Bodley's Librarian*) being mentioned by several people and journalists:

- Harvard
- Wikipedia
- Cornell

* - the Librarian section in the Bodley's Librarian Wikipedia page is a most enjoyable read if you are into librarian history.
posted by Wordshore at 9:32 PM on July 1, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is there something wrong with Noah Wyle?
posted by stet at 10:49 PM on July 1, 2015

Billington's legacy is not mixed.

The Library staff were literally dancing in the hallways when he made the announcement.

I can personally attest that the LoC has seriously neglected its duty to bring government information and documents into the 21st Century (not to mention the clusterfuck of conflicting missions between LoC, GPO, and NARA).

When I worked at the Senate, we deliberately discarded tons of information because the Library "wasn't ready for it," despite having spent many years and millions of dollars on IT systems that never launched.

Apart from the IT disaster, my friends who have worked at the LOC describe the management as "psychotic," easily being one of the most dysfunctional work environments in the Federal Government.
posted by schmod at 5:14 AM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you're interested in LoC internals and politicking you should read this essay from someone who left the Congressional Research Service, which is organized under the Library. I was looking at some of my old emails while thinking about this and this was mentioned in there, partly because there've been comments that the CRS's secretive culture sometimes bleeds over into other aspects of things the LoC does for Congress and which should (IMNSHO) be fully transparent and make an effort at disclosure.
posted by phearlez at 9:21 AM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Adamsc, I get your point. It's pretty clear that Billington did not think information technology was sufficiently important to delegate to someone who understood it. I have worked in organizations where lip service is paid to a concept but no resources are dedicated to executing, and the result is much like the LoC is experiencing. I guess I am comfortable calling that neglect.
It's an interesting failure because in some ways the importance was seen fairly early on with projects like American Memory, which started around 1990 using CDs to distribute digitized content and hit the web by 1994 – before Netscape Navigator hit 1.0, and related activities under the larger National Digital Library Project.

From my [limited] perspective, it seems like one part of the problem wasn't failing to see that IT was important so much as mistaking the nature of the new technology to something closer to the traditional process of acquiring rare artifacts or building a museum exhibit: come up with an idea, line up funding, hold a press conference and let the public enjoy it while you move on to the next project. This seems to be fairly common problem with executives of a certain age – I know plenty of people at large non-software corporations who've had to struggle to explain that building and maintaining a competent IT capacity requires a serious, ongoing expenditure rather than something you only spend money on every decade or so. The modern example I'd use now are all of the dated corporate apps in Apple’s App Store which launched during the early “gotta be there!” rush and haven't changed much since because they never got permission to hire the freelancer who built it after the CEO had checked that box off for the annual report.
posted by adamsc at 3:20 PM on July 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

This seems to be fairly common problem with executives of a certain age

Oh gosh the World Digital Library is exactly this. And, in a weird way, so is the Internet Archive. They get grants, build things but don't have money in them to support the things unless the things bring in money. Which, to be fair, a lot of them do but not ALL of them do. The things that can't pay for their own support are not supported except with a few overworked folks. Building things is fun. Supporting things is not. Much of the work of libraries is various kinds of support (in addition to curation, acquisition, preservation and the rest) and that gets underreported or de-statused as if it's admin work. It's not, it's THE work and its time that got recognized for how crucial it is to a healthy society.
posted by jessamyn at 4:42 PM on July 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

jessamyn: I joined the WDL project in 2010 as the 5th developer; now I'm the only one. The project team is extremely focused on sustainability but, as you might guess, it's complicated.

One of the under appreciated things about WDL is the degree of research which goes into the item metadata and descriptions as well as the fact everything is published in 7 languages. Explaining many of the items requires significant scholarly work and even a seemingly well-defined task like translation has some interesting challenges – e.g. there are a fair number of Mesoamerican Codices which are popular with scholars but the Arabic translations required non-trivial work just to get the vocabulary right because there apparently hasn't been much cross-over between those academic communities and many terms hadn't previously been translated. Those classes of work seem worthwhile – certainly more long-term value than my code – but are woefully under-appreciated.
posted by adamsc at 6:31 PM on July 2, 2015

I love WDL! But as you know in today's world of megadata and with agile development being all "Get it done and worry about documenting later" the level of care and attention and multilingual functionality it has is ... enviable and yet, it's high touch right? And that sort of thing, for whatever stupid reason, is less fundable than just "We scan a ton of shit and get it online and it's mostly okay" which is what I feel like a lot of massive scanning projects are nowadays. Or they're portal-y value-add things like DPLA which I like but... it's one level removed from the actual stuff which is fine (and useful) but a different sort of work. WDL could be DPLA but it would happen at a slower pace and that seems to not be what funders are looking for. I feel like a #nextloc could encourage people to get their priorities a bit more straight.
posted by jessamyn at 7:00 PM on July 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

jessamyn: I've been very happy to see the amount of attention you've gotten with #nextloc so far. Given the repeated auditors reports, it would be easy for the primary goal for the next Librarian to simply be a competent administrator for a large organization. That certainly wouldn't be bad – e.g. bringing IT up to modern standards alone could have a transformative effect – but it would certainly miss the full potential of the opportunity.

I've definitely felt a divide between the quasi-industrial bulk digitization projects, portals and expensive value-added projects like WDL. I think mass digitization is an incredibly worthwhile activity from a preservation perspective but I suspect part of why it's so popular is that it produces get big numbers which are easy to explain to funders. It seems to me that the time is ripe for some high-level reflection about both where the value has really come from and how to encourage more experimentation with less traditional approaches. It particularly seems like a lot of the collaborative possibilities of the web are still poorly explored and it seems like time to think about what cultural heritage institutions can learn from Wikipedia, the Flickr Commons, OSM, etc.
posted by adamsc at 9:17 AM on July 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

(Just saying, this conversation is why I like Metafilter.)
posted by JHarris at 7:13 PM on July 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

Andrew Albanese raises the prospect (or spectre) of a confirmation hearing that's politically contentious:
Make no mistake, this time around the appointment is a pretty big deal. The next librarian of Congress will be the first national librarian appointed in the digital information age. And whoever assumes the role could have a major impact on the future of libraries in America, and on the nation’s information and intellectual property policies for a very, very long time.
And personally... I hope it's at least a bit contentious, given the LoC's Copyright Office's rulemaking authority, which is far to important to risk leaving in the hands of a shill for Big Rightsholders.
posted by metaquarry at 8:43 AM on July 5, 2015

From that link in the last comment:

There have only been 13 national librarians in U.S. history, dating back to Thomas Jefferson, who established the Library of Congress in 1802. And there have been just six since 1900, a period during which the publishing, film, music and tech industries took shape, and our cultural output exploded.

Just six since William McKinley was POTUS?!?
posted by Wordshore at 11:26 AM on July 5, 2015

Huh; that was unexpected. I emailed five librarians who IMHO have the CV to be seriously considered for the position, and could/would be good in it i.e. they are all librarians with a good track record, are pro-librarian/info science skills, know about tech from a library perspective, have implemented information tech somewhere notable, and so on.

The unexpected thing is that all five have replied back (!) and none of them want the position. The most common reason - in fact the one cited by all five in different ways - is that they don't want to go to DC/the "Beltway" (had to look up what that was) and deal with the politics and politicians.

And this may be a problem with what is a political job. A politician or lawyer may want it. A librarian - a suitable one at that - may avoid it with a very long bargepole, even if it does mean job security and a nice paycheck for, literally, life. Good librarians are often principled people and like getting things implemented and done, so this position may be unattractive for more than a few excellent candidates.

posted by Wordshore at 11:43 AM on July 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the other hand, some librarians become library directors, and at that level, dealing with politics in the form of dealing with the library's host community or host institution is nigh unavoidable. One of the previous Librarians of Congress, L. Quincy Mumford, had exactly that background, and it was during his tenure that LC spearheaded the MARC format – which for its time was a solid technical achievement. How did Mumford help with that? By letting Henriette Avram do her thing (although I have no idea to what degree Mumford either actively or passively supported the MARC project).

I'd agree that one of the big downsides of the job is that if one does it well, one never gets to personally implement anything.
posted by metaquarry at 1:59 PM on July 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

I just wanna point out that the Flickr account (the updates maintained by one of my teammates) is quite excellent. And the Search that jessamyn mentioned in Librarian of Progress is what my team mainly works on. We're making pretty great headway into indexing everything and giving everything a unified look instead of crazily disparate websites a la mid 90's American Memory.
posted by numaner at 10:41 AM on July 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

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