Years ago, I took a weekend vacation from my first semester of library school to visit Washington D.C. with a friend who was also a librarian.
In between visiting Smithsonian attractions (the Air and Space Museum is my favorite) and checking out the Adams-Morgan nightlife, we made it a point to visit the Library of Congress.
The tour focused on the building, and we learned about the history and architecture of the Library. Our tour guide expounded for several minutes on the “putti”: marble carvings of cherubic children representing career paths such as hunter, mechanic, printer, and chemist.
The tour touched lightly on the services and collections of the Library of Congress, but I don’t recall any mention of the chief administrator. Even as a librarian in training I was more caught up in the mystique of the building than the library itself, and I didn’t pause in the Great Hall to wonder about the Librarian of Congress.
That position got a lot more press coverage recently with James Billington’s retirement. In a few months, President Obama has the opportunity to appoint a new Librarian of Congress for the United States. This is an important position: in addition to running their eponymous library and naming the Poet Laureate, the Librarian also oversees the Copyright Office.
Obama’s appointment will be a fascinating indicator of what the United States administration looks for in the library profession. The information landscape has altered dramatically since the position was last filled: Billington has been the Librarian since 1987.
The months-long wait for Billington’s retirement allow for sundry opinions on the best choice for the next Librarian of Congress. Many librarians found Billington frustrating, wishing that the Library of Congress would be closer to the forefront of digital innovation. Billington did, however, have a great track record in securing funding for the LoC.
For prior appointments, the American Library Association made a big push for the position to be filled by a librarian, which had not been the norm in the past. Several putti would be needed to depict past Librarians of Congress; there was a doctor, a Pulitzer-winning writer, several scholars and career politicians, and one professional librarian. The professions held may have been diverse, but in other ways the candidates were very similar. Every single Library of Congress has been a white male, which has led to some pointed feedback to the White House.
In preparation for naming a new appointee, librarians are both reaching out to the White House and being individually invited to share their perspectives on what qualities the next Librarian should hold. The general consensus sounds a lot like any library director job posting: someone who is forward-thinking and tech-savvy, fosters innovation, and is deeply knowledgable about copyright concerns. Perhaps that person is Brewster Kahle, as suggested in Slate, or perhaps Jessamyn West can fulfill the Librarian of Progress role she champions. There are a number of candidates that could be considered, with a vast range of leadership experience.
Good leadership has some definable qualities, no matter what the scale of the position. We talk a lot around here about traits we want to see in library leaders, like listening, taking responsibility, and leading by example.
Possessing leadership traits is just part of the qualifications needed for the next Librarian of Congress. Perhaps we need someone who has a variety of putti pursuits mastered, in addition to library expertise. This is a huge job, and it’s hard to hire for it.
I’m glad I don’t have the tough choice of recommending potential candidates, but I know I want a dynamic leader representing my profession. I want future library school students vacationing in D.C. to know the Librarian’s name and work before they set foot in the Great Hall.
What’s your take? What experience should someone have to be considered, and what qualities would you look for in the next Librarian of Congress? Share your thoughts in the comment section.