This past summer, James Billington, librarian of Congress, retired after serving for 28 years. Most librarians were happy about that, including, evidently, other employees at the Library of Congress. The Washington Post reported that the reaction inside the library was “almost gleeful.” One staffer said Billington’s departure “felt like a great weight has been lifted from our shoulders.”
To be fair, Billington accomplished several notable things during his tenure, including securing an exceptional donation from David Packard for the preservation of audiovisual materials. But for most of his time in office, Billington was derided for his inability to lead the Library of Congress into the digital era. This failure, detailed in a series of critical government reports dating back to at least 2002, was enough to motivate Congress to pass legislation last month limiting future librarians of Congress to a 10-year term.
With its unique historical collections, the Library of Congress should be among the most important digital libraries in the world. But it is not. And on the occasion of Billington’s departure, some prominent academic library leaders went on the record in the New York Times to register their disappointment with the library’s lack of digital achievement. Paul Courant, former librarian and provost of the University of Michigan, said in regard to digitization and the use of digital technologies that “the library has basically been a bust.”
I started my career in digital libraries in the early 1990s at UC San Francisco, managing the Red Sage Project initiated by UCSF librarian Richard Lucier. That innovative project enabled scholars for the first time to set up topic alerts and to read journals on their desktop computers, and it helped establish the technical and economic feasibility of using digital platforms to deliver journal content over the network. In the same era, the National Library of Medicine was initiating a trailblazing effort to index and describe medical literature, an effort that would ultimately lead to PubMed Central, the greatest free repository of health sciences information in the world. In contrast, Billington’s early efforts to create a global digital library went nowhere, despite having strong senior directors.
In hindsight, what is also disappointing is that library leaders in the United States failed to publicly push the Library of Congress into the digital realm. Billington’s leadership was openly labeled a farce in the aisles at ALA meetings, and he was privately lampooned as a fragile leader wandering the halls of the library. But no one in the greater library community loudly campaigned for more accountability or better leadership. It is as if the Library of Congress were a defect that the library community chose to route around. Why? In the midst of the greatest shift of information access the world had ever seen, why were the nation’s public library directors willing to essentially write off the Library of Congress?
Ultimately, I think it is because the U.S. library profession has failed to foster an effective national leadership culture. Even today, I would be hard pressed to identify a national public library leader who could speak and rally librarians on behalf of the broader community—with the possible exception of Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, who is not, in fact, a professional librarian. There are notable academics who have helped draft bold new visions for national libraries: John Palfrey, head of school at the Phillips Academy, and former librarians such as Harvard’s Robert Darnton, and Michigan’s Courant. But the institutions they represent could never compellingly engage public libraries.
To be honest, it did not even occur to me that the library community’s voice was so absent in terms of the Library of Congress’s role until last month, when I sat with ALA senior policy directors in Washington, D.C., to discuss who might be the next librarian of Congress. It occurred to me that if librarians then had undertaken a coordinated effort to make the Library of Congress a pivotal focus of the digital transition, we might have salvaged two decades of wasted opportunities. In that sense, Billington’s failure is the library community’s failure as well.
I don’t know why a lack of leadership culture has persisted in the library community. In quieter decades, the absence of charismatic, visionary library leaders might not have mattered. But in the Internet age, this lack of leadership is a self-inflicted wound.
Hopefully, Billington’s retirement will serve as a wake-up call for senior public librarians to enter the public eye and forcefully engage a national debate around our networked information culture. As the network—a creature of our own devising—begins to condition what we think is even possible, surely the moment to demand more of ourselves has arrived.