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In February 2016, President Obama announced a groundbreaking nomination for Librarian of Congress: Carla Hayden. Boing Boing describes her as “rip-snortin’, copyfightin’, surveillance-hatin’, no-foolin’ ”—a silly way of saying she’s got a history of social justice work in public libraries. Besides this, she’s notable for being the first African-American woman nominated to the office.

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Hayden is a former leader of the Chicago public library system, a former head of the American Library Association, the biggest and oldest professional association for librarians, a vocal opponent of the USA PATRIOT Act, and one of the librarians responsible for keeping Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library open during protests following the death of Freddie Gray. (The library is located near the center of the area where the protests were taking place.) Oh, and apparently copyright-extension lobbyists are terrified of her. All of these things will make her a marked contrast from her predecessors (if she’s confirmed by Congress).

The U.S. has had only 13 Librarians of Congress since the position was created in 1802, due to a “for life” term appointment (the longest-serving, Herbert Putnam, held the office for 40 years). Until October 1, 2015, when acting Librarian of Congress, David S. Mao took office, they’ve all been white males, most with no library experience whatsoever—a vanity appointment bestowed as a favor by the President. James Billington, a Reagan appointee who stepped down after 28 years of service in 2015, is a scholar of Russian literature and history. He has recently been strongly criticized for his aversion to technology—most notably his refusal of e-mail in favor of the fax machine. The Obama government subsequently capped terms at 10 years, and some say it’s in direct response to Billington’s anti-tech attitude. Not a very cheery mark of one’s legacy.

In truth, the Library of Congress has fallen behind the cultural times, not only with regard to technology and digitization, but also to copyright legislation and accessibility and keeping its classification system up to date by eliminating pejorative terms. A historical primer may help illustrate the work cut out for Hayden—and the many actors working at cross-purposes she’ll have to deal with, not least the RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America).

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While the original mandate of the Library was, of course, to serve Congress, it’s been accessible to the public for many years, functioning as a “de facto national library.” Add millions of dollars in rare books and documents (including the U.S. Constitution and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence), a massive audio-video preservation center in a former Cold War bunker in Virginia, an accessibility program for audio and braille resources, and responsibility for standards for libraries throughout the world, and the Librarian of Congress will have her hands full.

In 2007, professors Suzanne Thorin and Robert Wedgeworth referred to the title-holder as a “cultural ambassador” and a “de facto U.S. Secretary of Culture.” Their article also includes a blurb on Billington, then entering his 20th year in the role, portraying optimism at his embrace of technological changes—a stark contrast to later reviews.

Who Were Our Librarians of Congress?

Two of the 13 Librarians had any background in librarianship; the remainder have ranged from academics and men of letters like Billington to economists and businessmen. Every time a new one needs appointing, the debate centers on whether the title-holder should be a figurehead or an administrator—and whether it’s a snub to ignore librarians as contenders in either case.

A series of profiles in the Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress indicates that these men of varied backgrounds have each added something to the national library’s repertoire and powers. The “poet librarian,” Archibald MacLeish, somehow accomplished significant workplace reforms and organizational restructuring that resulted in a much stronger mandate. Journalist John Russell Young, in a term of only two years (the only one to be nominated and confirmed the same day), appointed a record number of women and minorities, and started the accessible collection. Luther Evans, working in a drastically different post-WWII era, pushed the Library to work in partnership with public libraries across the country. Lawrence Quincy Mumford, the only one so far with academic accreditation in library science, managed to grow the Library’s budget 10 times. To anyone familiar with library budgets, this is basically like saying he worked magic.

Ainsworth Rand Spofford, perhaps the closest-fitting of the librarian stereotype, was a bookish writer, a “compulsive polarizer of knowledge,” and the author of several reference works (when he wasn’t founding library associations and literary clubs). Appointed by Lincoln in 1864, Spofford expanded the physical library, added the copyright department, annexed the Smithsonian’s library, and grew the Library of Congress into the twofold institution we have today, serving both Congress and the country.

Herbert Putnam, appointed to the job in 1899 and the first one to have any library management experience, was lauded for his recognition of women’s accomplishments in librarianship. Putnam saw the library like so:

Its first duty is, no doubt, as a legislative library, to Congress. Its next is, as a federal library, to aid the executive and judicial departments of the government and the scientific undertakings under government auspices. Its next is to that general research which may be carried on at Washington by resident and visiting students and scholars. . . . But this should not be the limit. There should be possible, also, a service to the country at large—a service to be extended through the libraries which are the local centers of research involving the use of books.

This speech was given at the 1901 annual conference of the American Library Association, the group that helped Putnam attain the position.

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The American Library Association is a major stakeholder (or, perhaps more accurately, attempted stakeholder) in the Librarian of Congress appointment. Since the ALA’s founding in 1876, it has lobbied hard almost every time the position has come up for grabs. This go-round has been no different: It penned an open letter to President Obama, asking him to nominate someone with library-school accreditation or library management experience, and is obviously thrilled with the outcome.

Over the years, the ALA has published several letters from concerned librarians, including a 1945 gem written by the president of the ALA. In typical-librarian passive-passive fashion, Carl Vitz describes traits that would benefit the community as a whole (and the Library of Congress by coincidence), concluding with the contemporary equivalent of “Call Me Maybe”:

Now that the position again has become vacant, the choice of a Librarian of Congress is of immediate concern…. The position of Librarian of Congress requires a top-flight administrator, a statesmanlike leader in the world of knowledge, and an expert in bringing together the materials of scholarship and organizing them for use—in short, a distinguished librarian. May I, as President of the American Library Association, respectfully say that there are such men in the ranks of our librarians today. It will be a privilege and honor to bring their names to your attention, and I hope that you will give our Association an opportunity to do so.

Note the assumption, in 1945, that any nominee would be male. Perhaps Vitz thought he would get the nod himself?

In 1939, the appointment occasioned a particularly intense lobbying campaign by the librarian community, as detailed in equally candid and entertaining accounts by Dennis Thomison for the Library Quarterly and Betty Schwartz for the Journal of Library History.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was faced with replacing Putnam, the longest-serving Librarian, after a 40-year term. Roosevelt’s priorities? “International and professional recognition of the appointee outside the field of library science,” and “that the candidate be recognized as a ‘gentleman and scholar,’ both here and abroad, and that he be young enough to give many years of service to this work.”

The ALA’s “bitter attack” against nominee Archibald MacLeish, a poet with a Harvard law degree, came after its successful effort to get Putnam appointed. The ALA decreed that the appointment of MacLeish was “a calamity,” and an indication of the President’s “little respect for librarians.” Which was true: Roosevelt once referred to “the Library of Congress as a ‘Mausoleum,’ and to librarians as ‘professional trained seals.’ ”

Roosevelt’s choice may have been influenced by MacLeish’s vocal support for the New Deal in Fortune, where he was a contributing editor. It was definitely subject to the advice of Justice Felix Frankfurter, whom Roosevelt had recently appointed to the Supreme Court, and who took a rather simple view of the workload:

What is wanted in the directing head of a great library are imaginative energy and vision. He should be a man who knows books, loves books, and makes books. If he has these three qualities the craftsmanship of the librarian’s calling is an easily acquired quality. But only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars, because he alone really understands the wants of scholars.

The ALA protested, with a 1,400-signature open letter to Roosevelt and a letter-writing campaign to Senate members, to some effect. One senator publicly accused MacLeish of being a Communist and demanded he resign. Much like previous attempts to advocate for the profession, however, this one came to naught. After the Senate approved MacLeish, the ALA president wrote a very apologetic “nothing personal” letter: “We all regret that our attempt to secure a professionally trained librarian had to take the form of a protest against your confirmation. I am sure you realize, however, that your lack of training and experience was the sole basis of our action.”

Another somewhat-conciliatory moment took place at the appointment of historian Daniel Boorstin, in 1975: An anonymous editorial, after the ALA’s vocal opposition to Boorstin failed, detailed the “chagrin” that must necessarily give way to flattery, favors, and forgetfulness.

But in fact, flattery and favors have been far outweighed by forgetfulness. Outside the appointment process, actual librarians have had little contact with Librarians of Congress; the relationship has been, on the whole, one-sided.

In 1876, then-Librarian (and library fanboy) Spofford evidenced a clear disinclination to attend the first ALA Annual Conference, saying conferences were “mere wordy outlets for impracticables and pretenders.” He also professed “perhaps undue distrust” at the very idea that librarians might be good orators. Conference planner Melvil Dewey (of whom you may have heard) was only able to wheedle Spofford’s attendance by promising him time to talk about one of his favorite subjects: copyright. The ALA announced him at his grudging appearance as “the official father of us all, the national keeper of our books.” In the ensuing 21 years of his term, Spofford only attended four of these annual affairs (the Library of Congress was the official host of two). How can one be such a fan of libraries but so dismissive of librarians? Perhaps Spofford was simply too busy running the Library’s finances into the ground.

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After all this, we might conclude that future Librarians of Congress, whether eloquent academics or forward-thinking managers, will push the Library into territory largely reflecting their own interests. I’d predict Hayden’s tenure will contain advances in users’ rights—whether in copyright, privacy, or access to information—perhaps even motivating librarians across the country to lobby for legislative changes.

Billington, however we may feel about his preference for the fax machine, seemed to perform perfectly fine as an impassioned figurehead. His downfall was in failing to appoint staff who would handle the administrative undertakings of the Library in the 21st century (something other Librarians of Congress have had difficulty with, too).

The truth is, having a librarian as Librarian is sometimes beside the point. In times of funding crisis, controversial issues, or sweeping changes, libraries’ best allies are articulate advocates who can translate library jargon for the outside world. Having a Librarian of Congress who can procure resources and legislative powers is more of an asset than representation at the executive level (diversity issues notwithstanding). Instead of focusing on the top job, we might instead wish for lower-level organizational changes that will benefit programming, innovation, and public services best. Leave the public speaking to the politicians.


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