The Library of Congress Was Hacked Because It Hasn't Joined the Digital Age

Library Administrator's Digest, November 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Library of Congress Was Hacked Because It Hasn't Joined the Digital Age


With the presidential election taking all the air out of the room, July's IT attack on the Library of Congress barely made the news. But for good governance advocates and policymakers, this denial of service attack, which caused a three day service outage, validated decades of complaints about the Library of Congress' failure to join the digital age.

Americans are familiar with the Library's mission to archive the world's literature and research. But Congress, librarians and specialized policy wonks are more familiar with the Library's many other functions, including the intelligence gatherer, legislative tracker, governance think tank and intellectual property bureaucracy. The Library's dysfunction is bad news for Congressional staff, and the researchers and scholars who depend on the archives of American history and information on the world's most unstable regions.

Surprisingly, the Library of Congress was among the first in government to embrace the power of the internet. Pushed on the Library by Newt Gingrich and thrown together with a quick and dirty build, THOMAS.gov (the predecessor to Congress.gov) debuted in January of 1995. Despite the fast execution and concern over who could even access this site when comparatively few people had internet access, THOMAS.gov handled almost a million queries within the first 38 days of operation.

So what happened? Government investigations as far back as 2002 have highlighted the mismanagement of contractors, budget, overall management and IT services. Many government watchdogs and library scholars also point to the former Librarian, Dr. James Billington. Serving 28 years in the position, Billington had a reputation for both being a difficult manager and an infamous luddite, even reportedly requesting at times that staff fax him at home and refusing to use email.

Appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, Billington has had some positive moments in his legacy. His review of the DMCA in 2010 (which the Library holds jurisdiction over and is tasked with reviewing every three years) massively changed the future of copyright. Around Washington, Billington gained a reputation as a dynamic private fundraiser, using these funds to supplement Library budgets for collections and programming. However, much like his overall management, Billington's fundraising style has also come under fire, both over the exclusivity and possible use of donated funds for donors-only swank dinners and performances.

The Library does have a chief information officer, but in recent years, it struggled to fill the position, cycling through five temporary CIOs before being forced to find a permanent CIO by recommendations in a scathing 2015 Government Accountability Office report on the Library's IT systems.

In this report, the GAO again confirmed what scholars, lawmakers and their staff have been struggling with for years: the Library of Congress is simply not equipped to join the 21 st century. The GAO estimates that the LOC spends roughly $120 million dollars on IT functions, but the library's accounting records leave much to be desired, particularly when recording acquisitions of new IT assets.

When asked to account for the number of systems within the Library, the number of systems was first recorded to be 30, then 46 and eventually 70. Most notably, overseas office systems were left off the list. Since 1962, these offices have been tasked with collecting materials in underdeveloped and politically volatile areas, including (infamously) the acquisition of a copy of Osama Bin Laden's autobiography.

These overseas offices have even become an important tool in the fight against ISIS. With the wanton destruction of cultural artifacts and archives by ISIS and general civil unrest, experts at the Library's Middle Eastern offices have been at the forefront of providing support in the salvaging of damaged books and other materials. …

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