OK… I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been a little busy lately. (Thus the shortage of recent postings – my apologies dear readers). I quit a job, took a new job, moved 1300 miles and have been, in general, pretty preoccupied with my own career. That said, I still feel like I’ve been a bit tuned in to the world around me and yet this evening while I was surfing, I uncovered something shocking. Is it just me… Am I the only one who did not realize…that our Librarian of Congress is retiring after 28 years, and the process is ongoing to appoint a new Librarian of Congress?
How is this not the number one topic on every library blog, Library Journal, ALA and library website? For the first time in 28 years we have the opportunity to have a new Librarian of Congress! This is a thrilling and exciting opportunity.
Now, I’m going to take just a moment of pause because as I read the little bit of coverage that there has been about Dr. Billington’s retirement… I have been incredibly disheartened to read the snarky, unkind, and (quite frankly) mean-spirited comments that have been made about his tenure. None of us have walked in Dr. Billington’s shoes and while we can all backseat drive and Monday morning quarterback about what we think he should have done, let’s look at what he has accomplished: pushing back on the Patriot Act, advocated for Net neutrality, championed the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library program, created online a major bilingual website with Russian libraries, and launched smaller such joint projects with the national libraries of Brazil, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Egypt, established the National Book Festival with Laura Bush in 2000, acquired the only copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map (“America’s birth certificate”) in 2003 for permanent display in the Jefferson Building, created the Library’s first Young Readers Center in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in 2009, launched BARD, a state-of-the-art digital talking books mobile app for Braille and Audio Reading Downloads in partnership with the Library’s National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped in 2013, and the list goes on. While he may not have been the digital elevator that so many individuals would like to see today, let’s not malign the gentleman who served as the 13th Librarian of Congress since 1987 (long before the Internet), was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate, or refuse to acknowledge the work that he has done during his time as our Librarian of Congress. (A more complete listing of his impressive accomplishments can be read at http://www.loc.gov/today/pr/2015/15-105.html) Thank you Dr. Billington for the work that you’ve done and may you enjoy your retirement.
Now onto the future… Some of the articles that I’ve been reading have detailed lists of names of potential appointees. These range from historians, presidents of Ivy League universities, and prominent public library directors. But what I don’t see is any of that tied to the discussion of what it is that we want our Library of Congress to do and oversee during the next decade. Rather than simply appointing someone who has previously done good work, shouldn’t we first begin the discussion with what we want to see the Library of Congress accomplish in the next decade, and then find a leader who can accomplish that mission?
So what would we want the Library of Congress to accomplish in the next decade? The Library of Congress was established in 1800 by an act of Congress for the purpose of being “a reference library for Congress only, containing such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress – and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein”. That mission remains as steady today as does our very Constitution, because it is law. I’m not advocating to reinvent the Library of Congress but rather to view that mission through the lens of the 21st-century. What does that mean?
Of course there will be millions of opinions about what that means… But what it means to me
From LOC’s own website “The Library’s mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” In my readings I am seeing it referred to as research, cultural institution, archive, repository, etc. But in truth it appears that throughout the lifespan of the Library of Congress it’s core mission has always been to maintain such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress. Thomas Jefferson is attributed as saying “I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection, since there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Let’s contemplate what Thomas Jefferson was meaning – that in the provision of their duties as representatives of the American public there would be no topic that members of Congress might not have occasion for which they might require some references. One might justly see that this is an interpretation of the American public’s own right to access any and all information on any subject. So in truth, while not a public library in the manner that the public is walking through the doors each day and utilizing the collection to circulate, the Library of Congress is a representation of all that is sacred about the American public library.
When looked at in this manner is it not appropriate that in the next decade the Library of Congress should lead the way in legislation, policy, and best practice for not only our profession but also every public library in America? And with that said, should we not then look to find someone who has brilliant ideas and proven practice of daily role modeling of all that is good and worthy about the American public library? Should not this be the template for our next Librarian of Congress? He or she should be someone who embodies the ideals of the 21st century public library. He or she should be someone with a firmly founded and crystal clear concept of what the 21st-century library can and should be, who can articulate that vision both inside and outside our profession as both a leader and an advocate.
With that said… why isn’t every blog, journal and website focused on our profession discussing and debating this important moment? As 21st Century Libraries we preach “Community Engagement”. We must learn to practice it as well!