For 215 years, the Library of Congress has been collecting and organizing the world’s knowledge for the benefit of Americans. Now its longtime leader is exiting amid acrimony, its mission is increasingly muddled and — no small matter — Americans have Google. Is the world’s largest library still necessary?
The answer is yes. But as with every institution in the digital age, it needs to evolve. Its next leader, the 14th Librarian of Congress, will face three big challenges.
The first is boring but critical. The library — with more than 100 million books and manuscripts, a $630 million budget and a staff of more than 3,000 — is sprawling, chaotic and increasingly archaic. As a withering report from the General Accounting Office found earlier this year, its technology is outdated, duplicative and disorganized. Hundreds of new flat-screen monitors have been sitting in a warehouse for years. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted. Have you tried the website?
Fixing all this is a job for a competent bureaucrat. The library churned through five temporary chief information officers in three years before a permanent one was appointed in September. Its next leader should appreciate that modernizing the library’s technology — and hiring better IT staff — is a prerequisite for subsequent reforms, such as digitizing more of its archives and opening more of its research to the public.
The second challenge is more daunting, but potentially more edifying. With many of the nation’s 16,000 public libraries shrinking, closing or morphing into social-service centers (often run by for-profit companies), it’s appropriate to ask whether such institutions are still essential to a 21st-century democracy. The next librarian should have a ready answer — they are — and be able to articulate a vision for libraries in the digital age.
Helping ensure that authoritative scholarship and reliable information remain free to the public online should be an overriding priority. Leading an effort to sensibly coordinate — and preserve — the digital collections of public and university libraries would be a good start.
All told, these challenges require a person who combines administrative competence with imaginative leadership — someone, in other words, suited to an institution built on the library of Thomas Jefferson.