Librarians of Congress: A Look Back at a Century of Controversies and Triumphs Surrounding the National Library's Leaders

By Thorin, Suzanne E.; Wedgeworth, Robert | American Libraries, June-July 2007 | Go to article overview

Librarians of Congress: A Look Back at a Century of Controversies and Triumphs Surrounding the National Library's Leaders


Thorin, Suzanne E., Wedgeworth, Robert, American Libraries


From its advent in 1907 as the Bulletin of the American Library Association, American Libraries has documented the evolution of the role of Librarian of Congress, and reported on the actions of the six men who have held the post in the last century, as well as the occasional battles surrounding their appointments. Librarians of Congress have been poets, playwrights, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, and indeed, librarians. They have frequently functioned as cultural ambassadors to the world, and in a sense, as the de facto U.S. Secretary of Culture.

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Backgrounds, experience, press releases, official pronouncements, and pontifications aside, the Librarian of Congress's job is complex and difficult: administration of what is quite literally the library of the U.S. Congress, which reviews the library's work and its leadership's performance and oversees its budget, policies, and procedures. A federal agency in the Legislative Branch along with the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Printing Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Architect of the Capitol, LC is also unofficially this country's national library, and among national libraries it is by far the largest; besides its numerous public reading rooms where patrons use the collections and reference services, LC collects comprehensively through the U.S. copyright deposit program as well as gifts, exchanges, and purchases abroad.

Yet the Library of Congress is also much more than a mega-library: LC houses other autonomous or nearly autonomous organizations, including the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Copyright Office, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Law Library, and the Federal Research Division. The Library of Congress is, in a sense, a corporation with a number of subsidiaries--one that has an internal board of directors in the form of the Joint Committee on the Library and the legislative Branch Appropriations Committee, to which the Librarian of Congress reports as the head of an agency of the legislative branch. In reality, however, each of the 535 members of Congress has a stake in the library and shares a pride of ownership.

Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, the president of the United States appoints the Librarian of Congress. The appointment has no term limit, although some Librarians of Congress have been replaced or have retired when new presidents assumed office. Tenures of previous librarians have run the gamut from two years (John Russell Young) to 40 (Herbert Putnam). In September, the tenure of the present Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, reaches 20 years--matching that of Lawrence Quincy Mumford. Two Librarians died in office (John James Beckley and Young), four retired from the position (Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Putnam, Mumford, and Daniel J. Boorstin), and six resigned for other reasons (Patrick Magruder, George Watterston, John Silva Meeham, John Gould Stephenson, Archibald MacLeish, and Luther H. Evans).

It is not in their length of service, however, but in their remarkable contributions, unrealized goals, and unintended legacies that the changes in the role of the Librarian of Congress and the library itself are revealed. It is illuminating to look back at Librarians of Congress who served over the past 100 years to discover why they were appointed--as well as at the library itself, as it grew into the largest library in the world.

Herbert Putnam

A century ago, when the Bulletin of the American Library Association was established, Herbert Putnam was only eight years into his 40-year tenure at LC's helm, the longest tenure of any Librarian of Congress. Son of the publishing scion George Palmer Putnam, Herbert Putnam was 38 years old when he took office in 1899, the year after serving the first of two terms as president of ALA; in 1904 he served a second term as ALA president while Librarian of Congress.

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