Renewing the Library of Congress

Not going anywhere.

Photographer: Karen Bleier/AFP

For 215 years, the Library of Congress has been collecting and organizing the world's knowledge for the benefit of Americans. Now its longtime leader is exiting amid acrimony, its mission is increasingly muddled and -- no small matter -- Americans have Google. Is the world's largest library still necessary?

The answer is yes. But as with every institution in the digital age, it needs to evolve. Its next leader, the 14th Librarian of Congress, will face three big challenges.

The first is boring but critical. The library -- with more than 100 million books and manuscripts, a $630 million budget and a staff of more than 3,000 -- is sprawling, chaotic and increasingly archaic. As a withering report from the General Accounting Office found earlier this year, its technology is outdated, duplicative and disorganized. Hundreds of new flat-screen monitors have been sitting in a warehouse for years. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted. Have you tried the website?

Fixing all this is a job for a competent bureaucrat. The library churned through five temporary chief information officers in three years before a permanent one was appointed in September. Its next leader should appreciate that modernizing the library's technology -- and hiring better IT staff -- is a prerequisite for subsequent reforms, such as digitizing more of its archives and opening more of its research to the public.

The second challenge is more daunting, but potentially more edifying. With many of the nation's 16,000 public libraries shrinking, closing or morphing into social-service centers (often run by for-profit companies), it's appropriate to ask whether such institutions are still essential to a 21st-century democracy. The next librarian should have a ready answer -- they are -- and be able to articulate a vision for libraries in the digital age.

That doesn't mean awkwardly chasing Silicon Valley trends (the library's mystifying attempt to collect everything on Twitter comes to mind). But it does mean applying the values that librarians have long upheld to a new era when they're by no means assured. Simply preserving knowledge, for instance, is shockingly difficult online: Most Web pages disappear within months of their creation. The free exchange of information is diminished when citizens are tracked and prodded by marketers as they journey across the Web, and when much of what they find is dubious or corrupted. Helping ensure that authoritative scholarship and reliable information remain free to the public online should be an overriding priority. Leading an effort to sensibly coordinate -- and preserve -- the digital collections of public and university libraries would be a good start.

Finally, the next librarian will have to confront the bedeviling issue of copyright reform. The U.S. Copyright Office, a part of the library since 1897, is a crucial component of the global digital economy. But its computer systems are dysfunctional, its staff is overwhelmed, and its decisions too often seem arbitrary. There's a strong case that it would be better off as an independent agency. Although that's a question for Congress, the broader issue of copyright -- and its uneasy tension with free speech in the age of the remix -- will require some clear and creative thinking from the next librarian. 

All told, these challenges require a person who combines administrative competence with imaginative leadership -- someone, in other words, suited to an institution built on the library of Thomas Jefferson

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.