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Who Should Be the Next Librarian of Congress? Wrong Question! | Commentary

With the news that James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, is retiring, there has been considerable discussion about who should be his successor — such as on the editorial page of The New York Times and at last month’s Annual Conference of the American Library Association in San Francisco. This particular question must be answered, of course, but we need to think bigger picture than that.

We are at a pivotal point in the digital revolution. How Americans work, govern, live, learn and relax is changing in fundamental ways. Today’s digital technologies are helping spur economic and social shifts as significant as those brought on by the manufacturing and distribution innovations of the industrial revolution. As part of the digital revolution, the roles, capabilities and expectations of information institutions (e.g., mass media, Internet companies, universities and libraries) have transformed and must continue to evolve. And, indeed, a number of the key players in today’s information ecosystem didn’t even exist when Billington became the librarian of Congress in 1987 — such as Google, Yahoo!, the Internet Archive, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Wikipedia, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Digital Public Library of America.

In light of this we need to consider: What are the necessary roles of federal government institutions such as the Library of Congress in the digital revolution? How can such institutions best promote innovation and creativity, and not get in the way of it? Which public interest responsibilities in the digital society inherently fall into the bailiwick of the federal government? We have many questions but few answers, and only modest cross-agency discussion and a dearth of cross-sector discussion of these bigger questions.

Many different federal government entities play a role in addressing issues relevant to information and the digital society. This includes the Library of Congress, along with the Federal Communications Commission, units of the Department of Commerce, National Archives and Records Administration, Government Publishing Office, units of the Department of Defense, the Department of Education, significant portions of the National Science Foundation, Kennedy Center, National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, White House Office of Management and Budget, the agencies mentioned below and yet others.

Thus, a number of agencies each has a piece of the puzzle of how to fashion the digital society to best serve Americans. The Library of Congress can and should play an important leadership role here. But, many federal entities are implicated and we need them to lead and work together, forging ahead in the same direction. And, the pieces won’t fit together unless we figure out our national priorities and strategy and get the right cadre of leaders installed in the pertinent agencies to carry out that work.

The next two years represent a special policy window. In addition to the librarian of Congress appointment, there are leadership vacancies at the National Library of Medicine and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Very soon now, we’ll begin thinking about new appointments in information and technology-significant posts throughout the executive branch, to serve in the next presidential administration. And David J. Skorton just started as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

This necessary conversation about issues, roles and leaders needs to be jump-started by federal government officials (especially in the White House), leaders in our major philanthropic organizations, corporate leaders with vision on the possibilities for digital society and concern with the public interest, and of course national leaders in the implicated sectors (e.g., libraries). I am hopeful the presidential candidates across political parties will also place national leadership of the digital society on their agenda for discussion and debate. To make progress, we must begin this conversation that will reveal the extraordinary opportunity and challenge ahead of us.

Admittedly the path forward is uncertain. But, the Library of Congress, for example, could play its part by providing national leadership on the public’s access to digital content, convening national institutions in the public, not-for-profit and corporate sectors to consider this issue. Additionally, it could provide leadership on the infrastructure of the digital society, focusing on technology interoperability; work on developing information professionals for the coming decades; fashion a national strategy and plan for preserving the nation’s digital cultural heritage, and other similar topics. In any event, the library must at the least focus inwards, improving the management of its component units, especially the U.S. Copyright Office, and as the American Library Association recommends, the next librarian of Congress should have definite knowledge about library values, issues and operations (i.e., be a librarian).

So yes, let’s move forward and nominate the next librarian of Congress with dispatch. But let’s also think big and strategically, and appoint agency leaders who also contribute to true national leadership of the digital society.

Alan S. Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences.

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