A New Direction for the Library of Congress?

By August 11, 2015

With the impending retirement of the longtime Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, there is an opportunity for a fundamental reconsideration of the function and operation of the Library of Congress. In particular, the time may be ripe for a massive expansion of the Library’s digitized holdings, enabling universal public access to its historic and cultural riches.

There are “Great New Possibilities for the Library of Congress!” according to the headline of an article by Harvard professor Robert Darnton in the New York Review of Books, August 13 (sub. req’d, exclamation mark in the original).

Dr. Billington (who oddly goes unmentioned by name in the NY Review article) is a figure of exceptional stature, and he has been for a long time. The 1959 book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky by the eminent literary critic George Steiner included an acknowledgment of thanks to Billington along with Isaiah Berlin, Alexandre Koyré, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, among other icons of a prior era. More recently, in 2004, former FAS President Jeremy J. Stone facilitated a trip by Dr. Billington to Iran to meet with the director of that country’s National Library, the first such visit to Iran by any U.S. government official in many years. (Originally “unannounced” and confidential, the trip was, ahem, disclosed by the Federation of American Scientists and reported in the New York Times, and it is now cited in Billington’s official bio.)

But one thing Dr. Billington has not been, by most accounts, is a digital pioneer who could lead the Library of Congress boldly into the unfolding media and communications environment of the present day. (However, his bio notes to the contrary that “His proposal in 2005 for the creation of a World Digital Library was endorsed by UNESCO in 2007 and launched online at www.wdl.org in April 2009.”)

The time for a change may have come.

“While other great libraries were leading the way into the digital future, [the Library of Congress] failed to manage its own information technology,” wrote Prof. Darnton in the NY Review.

“A new regime at the Library of Congress (LOC) could digitize its collections and link them with collections in other libraries, archives, and museums so that everyone has access to the resources that are everyone’s heritage… The repository of the LOC would then serve as the heart of a digital circulatory system that would energize the entire country,” Darnton wrote.

Perhaps so, although the chain of causality in that vision is a little vague. But much less ambitiously, the arrival of new leadership at the Library of Congress might also set the stage for a change of policy authorizing public access to non-confidential products of the Congressional Research Service, which is formally a part of the Library (though CRS too goes unmentioned in the NY Review article).

Until then, unauthorized access will have to do. New and updated reports from CRS that Congress has not seen fit to make publicly available online include the following.

A Guide to U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Operation Inherent Resolve, Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom, updated August 7, 2015

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations: FY2016, August 7, 2015

FY2016 Appropriations for the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, August 7, 2015

Obergefell v. Hodges: Same-Sex Marriage Legalized, August 7, 2015

Maritime Territorial and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) Disputes Involving China: Issues for Congress, updated August 7, 2015

Categories: Congress, CRS