The great Library of Alexandria was renowned in antiquity as a repository of all accessible knowledge that aimed “to collect, if possible, all the books in the world” (according to the 2nd century BCE Letter of Aristeas). Until its destruction, perhaps at the hands of Julius Caesar, the Library reflected and helped to generate a transforming wave of inquiry and enlightenment throughout the ancient world.
Our own Library of Congress is today the largest library in the world and, at least notionally, it has comparably grand ambitions.
Its declared mission is “to develop qualitatively the Library’s universal collections, which document the history and further the creativity of the American people and which record and contribute to the advancement of civilization and knowledge throughout the world, and to acquire, organize, provide access to, maintain, secure, and preserve these collections.”
Yet the Library has been allowed to languish behind rapid changes in information technology and knowledge management.
Google Books, for example, which provides online access to millions of volumes in dozens of languages, has leapfrogged over the Library of Congress in significant respects.
The Library has the institutional potential to match and exceed that achievement, given the requisite resources and leadership, but it is in a precarious state.
“The next Librarian of Congress will lead an organization that has really had significant physical and technological limitations and is struggling to adapt to a new century,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) at the recent confirmation hearing for Dr. Carla D. Hayden to be the Librarian of Congress. “Due to the historic shortage of storage space, the library has millions of items stored improperly and needs to find a better way to store them. There is risk of degradation of some of the collection.”
“In addition, recent information technology management challenges have raised questions about the Library’s ability to serve future generations as more and more collections need to be digitally collected, preserved and made available to the public,” he said.
Asked her views about allowing public access to reports of the Congressional Research Service, which is a component of the Library of Congress, Dr. Hayden said this was a decision for Congress to make.
“The extent to which CRS products are viewed, shared, used, or disseminated beyond the legislative branch are questions beyond the purview and mission of CRS. Ultimately, the questions are legislative. As Congress seeks to answer them, and if I am confirmed, I intend to play a constructive role in the process,” she said.
Update: On July 13 the Senate confirmed the nomination of Dr. Carla D. Hayden to be the 14th Librarian of Congress.