Asleep at the Wheel

In 1987, those roseate times before social media and Google searches, Dr. James Billington was appointed the United States’ Librarian of Congress. The appointment did not bode well. My voice was part of the outcry over the fact that at a crucial juncture for the role of libraries in the world, a person was taking the helm who was neither a librarian nor an information professional. The New York Times, which I had always viewed as the sage voice of national reason, opined that the job was too big for a librarian. It called for a scholar like Dr. Billington. So it goes.

On June 10, 2015, Dr. Billlington, now 86 years old, announced that he would retire on January 1 of 2016. As detailed in the linked article from the Washington Post, a series of scathing reports on the failure of the Library of Congress (LC) to adjust to the modern information landscape, let alone to play a leading role in its development, have been issued. The Washington Post article talks about staff dancing in conga lines of joy at the announcement of his retirement One colleague put it this way, ‘LC has been reinforcing its own Maginot Line against the information revolution with success equal to the original.’ Cultural capital has been lost. The field of librarianship has been adrift.

This is not to say that LC has not accomplished many things in recent decades, but it has abrogated a leadership role at the very time it was needed. As the profession of librarianship has been buffeted by the forces of change, as libraries as institutions have struggled to remain relevant, a leadership vacuum has exacerbated the problems. Billington is the latest in a long line of people who were ‘bigger than librarians’ who have been put in charge of grand institutions. I wrack my brain for an instance when this strategy has worked well. In my own patch, academic law librarians are losing ground in terms of status, pay and control. Library budgets look large on a balance sheet. Many lawyers and scholars share in the common misconception that all information floats out there on the Internet for free. The new Dean of my own law school is highly dubious about books taking up space and chewing up resources. He is not alone. It is a night of long knives for many library budgets.

Though I cannot speak for my colleagues in the private sector, I see the problems as shared. Librarians must justify budgets on a cost benefit basis. Information has been commodified. In U.S. law firms, the billable hour and the charge-back and how they relate to the bottom line are relevant questions. Other considerations are quaint shadows of a different time and place.

Libraries have battled for survival for centuries. If you doubt me try the marvelous book by William Blades, The Enemies of Books, published in 1880. Cost, space, heterodoxy and politics have assailed libraries for years. When I taught Reference Skills at the now defunct Berkeley School of Library and Information Studies (R.I.P.) I would have my students read T.C. Boyle’s short story, “We are Norsemen” about a Viking raid on a monastery, where at the story’s conclusion, the monk in charge of the library is killed and the invaders burn the place down. I would observe that libraries have always faced challenges but that it was unlikely that anyone would be attacked by large, murderous Vikings. (Some of my students who went on to work in public libraries have told me that Boyle was not far off). The point is that librarians have often done things for society’s own good. Porting that effort into the 21st Century is a Herculean task. To succeed, to have a chance of succeeding, the profession needs standard bearers. Visible leaders making big changes on a national stage are necessary. The head of the LC should be one such person. Not a political sinecure, not a sweet retirement gig for an eminent scholar, this job needs a techno-savvy savant who also loves books. The LC desperately needs leader who can inspire. Does such a person exist? If so, could she get the job? The retirement of Dr. Billington offers a chance. Will it be grasped? Time will tell.

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