A New Librarian of Congress

This year James Billington announced his retirement from the position of Librarian of Congress; he has since bumped up his retirement date from the end of the year to October 1, 2015, so now David Mao is serving as acting/interim head while we wait for President Obama to appoint a new Librarian of Congress.

Many people, librarians and others, have expressed their thoughts and opinions in the meantime. Billington was appointed in 1987 by Ronald Reagan and in recent years has been the target of many who believe that the LOC is not demonstrating a commitment to adaptation in an evolving information landscape. Copyright, digital preservation, and technology infrastructure are just some of the many important issues facing the appointee. Many pieces have been written about the impending appointment and a variety of opinions have been expressed. The American Library Association wrote a letter to President Obama, imploring him to appoint an actual librarian and laid out a list of proposed competencies:

As you contemplate the leadership needed to accomplish the significant work that lies ahead for libraries in a rapidly changing information environment, we strongly urge you to appoint a professional librarian as the next Librarian of Congress[…]
We believe that the competencies of the Librarian of Congress need to include:

  • experience as the leader of a major library serving the public and/or research community; 
  • deep subject/technical expertise in librarianship and the management of digital assets;
  • an understanding of scholarly research and scholarly communication;
  • executive management and leadership skills;
  • communication, marketing and resource development skills; and
  • vision, entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to collaboration.

As I read the letter I found myself agreeing with most of the major points, but also wondering: “Could they really pick someone that isn’t a librarian? The position isn’t just ‘head of the Library of Congress’; the job title is literally ‘Librarian of Congress.’ So how could they consider appointing someone who isn’t a librarian???” It turns out that most of the previous librarians of Congress were not professional librarians (two had professional experience in libraries, and only one of those had a degree). And apparently many non-librarians are being considered as serious options: “In picking a new librarian, Mr. Obama could again choose an historian [like Billington], or he could turn to a professional librarian, a college president, a management professional, a former politician or a Silicon Valley technology expert” (NYT). Many librarians have expressed concern, stating that if the next Librarian of Congress isn’t an actual librarian, they should at least have excellent leadership and change management skills.

I have to emphatically disagree. I have feelings about the next Librarian of Congress being a librarian (related: see my post about state librarians being actual librarians). This person is a figurehead for my profession (not the only one, but one of a few) and I would like them to represent LIS in a real way (that includes having library experience and probably a MLIS as well). I think it would demonstrate a very powerful sentiment: that libraries and librarians are at the center of information production, access, and preservation. And that the position of Librarian of Congress position is one that carries weight and rely on librarianship expertise.

[Ugh. What. No.]

Also, it would be fantastic if the administration, in addition to appointing a professional librarian, did something to break up the utter homogeneity of the group of Librarians of Congress. Not counting interim head David Mao, there have been 13 total Librarians of Congress and they have all been white men. As eloquently expressed in a “We the people” petition: “A consistently white and male Librarian of Congress re-enforces institutional stereotypes whereby women and minorities were relegated to lower levels while their bosses were mostly white men. This problem persists today: men are still over-represented in library director positions, particularly in the academic sector. There are many qualified female and minority librarians who could bring LOC into the digital age and lead.”

President Obama’s administration has a great deal of opportunity and responsibility with this appointment. While articles and tweets like some of those mentioned above discourage me, I hope that President Obama listens to various professional organizations and individuals that are advocating for diverse candidates with librarian experience. At this point we can only wait and hope…

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