Librarian of Congress Is Way More Important Than You Think


A 1995 view of the main reading room at the Library of Congress. The library could finally be getting a new librarian following James Billington's retirement in September 2015.  Kelly/Mooney Photography/Kelly-Mooney Photography/Corbis
A 1995 view of the main reading room at the Library of Congress. The library could finally be getting a new librarian following James Billington's retirement in September 2015. Kelly/Mooney Photography/Kelly-Mooney Photography/Corbis

With the current hoopla surrounding the replacement of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, it's surprising there hasn't more noise about another presidential-appointed position: the Librarian of Congress. This week, President Obama nominated Carla D. Hayden for the job and barely any politicians blinked.

A little history: When James Billington stepped down in September 2015, he had been in office since 1987, when Ronald Reagan appointed him and the Senate confirmed him. He stayed for 28 years. If Hayden's confirmed, there's nothing stopping her from doing the same.

Hayden would be both the first woman and the first African-American to lead the world's largest library. She's a former president of the American Library Association and the current CEO of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. Obama also nominated her to the National Museum and Library Service Board in 2010.

Hayden's potential position was created in 1802. While the role manages the everyday work of the library's huge staff (3,100 huge!), it's also responsible for a treasure trove of materials. The collections don't just hold books, but everything from music, film, television and radio recordings, to video games and Internet records, including, supposedly, everything ever tweeted.

This powerful position oversees copyright, public access to information and annual costs of around $668 million. Let's start with the surprising copyright power within this role. The U.S. Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress, which means the librarian in charge can declare what constitutes a copyright violation and what doesn't. You can't even register a U.S. copyright without submitting it to the library. The Librarian of Congress will be crucial toward any reform and how it affects future tech culture and policy.

In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death last year, Baltimore looters pillaged a burning drugstore across the street from a library branch that Hayden managed. Despite the civil unrest, she kept the library open with the protection of the National Guard.

Then there's the task of making the library's massive collection easily accessible in a time when everything is available on demand. Billington was in the job for so long, Hayden could be the first person appointed since the Web arose. So yeah, people want to access digital versions of the content their taxes have paid millions of dollars for. But again, here's where copyright is important, because that access also needs to be within the limits of the law. But if Google Books can do it, why not the Library of Congress?

Finally, for such a powerful position, the Librarian of Congress needs to be technologically savvy. Billington notoriously hated email and sometimes communicated with his staff ... via fax. Last March, the Government Accountability Office published a report about how poorly managed the library has been in recent years, down to basic services and technology. How are you going to digitize the world's content when you can't fix the library's internal infrastructure?

So let's picture the world in 2043. If she's confirmed, Hayden could still be the Librarian of Congress. Based on her curriculum vitae, let's hope she has what it takes to usher along copyright reform, improve library accessibility and competently run the institution's technological improvements. 



More to Explore