Why Silicon Valley Cares So Much about Who Will Lead the Library of Congress

By Lewontin, Max | The Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2015 | Go to article overview

Why Silicon Valley Cares So Much about Who Will Lead the Library of Congress


Lewontin, Max, The Christian Science Monitor


In 2012, the Library of Congress issued an unusual decision, ruling that cellphone unlocking - the process of moving a phone over to a different carrier instead of remaining on a fixed contract - would now be a violation of US copyright law.

The storied institution isn't usually noted for its technology policy, instead primarily focusing on the nation's cultural history and on serving members of Congress. But the ruling, granted by the library's broad oversight over copyright under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, rankled many cellphone users, prompting a sharp rebuke from some members of Congress and the Obama administration, which eventually reversed the decision two years later.

It also brought wider public attention to a debate that has quietly simmered for years over the Library's attitude toward technology, shaped by its longest-serving Librarian, respected Russian historian James Billington, who has become infamous for his use of faxes to communicate with library staff.

Separately, a wide-ranging group of librarians, technology companies, and policymakers have also raised questions about the library's stewardship of the US Copyright Office - which currently stores most of its valuable records in rows of paper volumes.

With the sometimes-prickly Mr. Billington resigning from his post unexpectedly on Wednesday after previously saying he would leave the position he had held for 28 years in January, advocates for a more modern library and a Copyright Office that embraces changes in how people consume culture are wondering if this could be the beginning of a new era.

"We're very excited," says Emily Sheketoff, director of the American Library Association's Washington office. "This is a great opportunity for the Library to step up and serve the people." She says the Library could play more of a global role as a leader for libraries outside the United States.

"The way Washington works now, and the way the world works, you need those collaborative skills and those management skills," adds Ms. Sheketoff, who came to the country's largest library organization after working in the White House and serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

She describes the library's 3,200-person staff as "demoralized," noting that the pressure to keep up with changing technological developments while managing a collection that holds more than 160 million items and having oversight over the complex world of copyright law can often be overwhelming.

The debate over the Library's relationship with technology has long been viewed as fraught. In the 1990s, the Library was seen as an early adopter of the Internet, bringing troves of Congressional records online in 1995 with the service Thomas.gov.

But since then, questions about the library's own technological struggles - including reports that it did not know how many computers it owned, lacked a dedicated person in charge of technology and did not have full control over the Copyright Office it was tasked with overseeing - have fueled questions about Billington's leadership. Unlike almost every high-level government position except the Supreme Court, the Librarian of Congress is a lifetime appointment, leading some critics to suggest that Billington, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has possibly overstayed his welcome.

"It used to be the king of all libraries," Suzanne Thorin, dean emerita of Syracuse University and Billington's former chief of staff, told the Washington Post in March, following the release of two scathing reports by the Government Accountability Office pointing to the library's lack of management over its own IT infrastructure. "Maybe it's benign neglect, but I don't see it at the center anymore."

The Library did not respond to a request for comment from the Monitor. But in March, Billington told the Post that he intended to remain at the helm, saying the library was still in a key position compared to other libraries around the world. …

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