I see the Library of Congress has a lot planned for ALA this year. Is it a big deal to have the Annual Conference in Washington D.C.?
We’re very excited, as you can imagine, and we have some cool things lined up. One thing that I’ll mention right up front is that the ALA shuttle bus service will include stops at the Library of Congress Jefferson Building. That will make it so much easier for ALA attendees to pop over for some of the programming that’s happening here, as well as just to look around on their own, take a tour, or visit the shop—we’ve really beefed up the shop, as you can imagine. We will of course have our pavilion at the convention center, too, where people can learn about the library’s programs and meet with some of our librarians and curators. And we’re hosting an open house event at the Jefferson Building on Saturday, June 22, from 5 to 8 p.m. We’re going to bring out the good silver, as we call it.
It has really benefited ALA to have the librarian of Congress so involved with the organization again, even participating in the speakers’ program. But you’ve always been involved with ALA personally. You’re a former ALA president. Can I ask: how has ALA benefited you over your career?
One of the main things ALA has done for me is it has given me a great network of colleagues, some of whom I’ve known since my first ALA conference, which was when I was in library school. And over my career, ALA really became a professional development opportunity, considering the committees I was able to serve on. A lot of the experiences that benefited my career happened through my involvement with ALA. So I would encourage librarians, younger librarians especially, to really utilize their professional organization.
It’s been a long time since a professional librarian has served as librarian of Congress. Is your background as a librarian is helping you in the job?
It doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure. Libraries at this time are really changing and evolving, and the Library of Congress is, too, so I think my experiences—in special libraries, public libraries, teaching library science—all gel in this position. And the idea of opening up the treasure chest we have here is very exciting, because this library can really make an impact by reaching out and being part of the larger network of libraries—all types of libraries. That’s something we’re really working on.
When you were nominated, there were a few critics who suggested that the Library of Congress isn’t really a library—that it is more like a museum, or that it is just a congressional resource. How should people think of the Library of Congress? It is a library, isn’t it?
Yes, it is a library. And yes, it is a resource for Congress. And it also has things that make it relatable to people who have museum experience—the rare special collections, which really are not that different from the special collections in academic libraries or the New York Public Library. The Library of Congress is unique, because it is a national library that has all of these elements. When people think of us, I want them to think, yes, it’s the Library of Congress, but it’s not just for Congress.
A recent article described your plans for expanding digital access to the library’s collections as “audacious” and “ambitious.” Tell us a little bit about those plans?
Well, the first thing we’re doing is making sure we have a good digital strategy. So many people cannot physically visit Washington, D.C., to sit in the manuscript room and look at the letters and notes of Rosa Parks, for example. With digital, you can now be anywhere and look at her handwritten notes. We’re not limited by physical proximity anymore. And we really want to emphasize the unique collections that we have here, and make them accessible. Think about what it means to put Teddy Roosevelt’s diaries online—or, those of Clara Barton, who suffered from depression, and having people be able to read what she said about pushing on. We’re also asking the public to help us out with some of our transcriptions, and that’s really been something. Our By the People program put 28,000 letters written to Abraham Lincoln online, a trove that hadn’t really been seen publicly, and we’re using a crowdsourcing program to help transcribe them. We’re going to be doing more of that.
Is Congress on board with your vision?
Congress has been very supportive, especially in our efforts to be more up-to-date with technology. They have invested quite a bit. Congress also—and I think people will be very heartened by this—has a real appreciation for libraries in general. They see a direct correlation between what the Library of Congress does for them and what libraries do for people in their communities and on campuses.
You’re the first Librarian of Congress to be term limited: 10 years. Do you have any thoughts on that?
In these changing times for libraries, I think it’s very healthy to have a term limit, and I support that. It gives us the opportunity to keep advancing the Library of Congress at a time when all types of libraries are changing all over the world. So I think it’s a good thing. There is an option to renew for another 10 years, but as I always tell people, I’m a little older than I look. I just want to do my part in this leg of the race.
And almost three years in to your 10-year term, how’s it’s going?
I think it’s going very well. There’s real momentum building. And that’s very encouraging, because there are a lot of investments being made, and executing on those investments has taken a couple of years. But we’re seeing results now. And having the ALA Annual Conference here in Washington, D.C., this year will be a great time for people to see for themselves.