Why Silicon Valley cares so much about who will lead the Library of Congress

After years of debate over the Library of Congress' failure to adapt to changing digital technology, the resignation of its longest-serving Librarian represents a new opportunity to move into the digital age.

Hector Emanuel/For The Christian Science Monitor
An iPad shows the Library of Congress Twitter feed with shelves of books in the background, at the Library in Washington D.C., in 2013.

In 2012, the Library of Congress issued an unusual decision, ruling that cellphone unlocking – the process of moving a phone over to a different carrier instead of remaining on a fixed contract – would now be a violation of US copyright law.

The storied institution isn’t usually noted for its technology policy, instead primarily focusing on the nation’s cultural history and on serving members of Congress. But the ruling, granted by the library’s broad oversight over copyright under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, rankled many cellphone users, prompting a sharp rebuke from some members of Congress and the Obama administration, which eventually reversed the decision two years later.

It also brought wider public attention to a debate that has quietly simmered for years over the Library’s attitude toward technology, shaped by its longest-serving Librarian, respected Russian historian James Billington, who has become infamous for his use of faxes to communicate with library staff.

Separately, a wide-ranging group of librarians, technology companies, and policymakers have also raised questions about the library’s stewardship of the US Copyright Office – which currently stores most of its valuable records in rows of paper volumes.

With the sometimes-prickly Mr. Billington resigning from his post unexpectedly on Wednesday after previously saying he would leave the position he had held for 28 years in January, advocates for a more modern library and a Copyright Office that embraces changes in how people consume culture are wondering if this could be the beginning of a new era.

“We’re very excited,” says Emily Sheketoff, director of the American Library Association’s Washington office. “This is a great opportunity for the Library to step up and serve the people.” She says the Library could play more of a global role as a leader for libraries outside the United States.

“The way Washington works now, and the way the world works, you need those collaborative skills and those management skills,” adds Ms. Sheketoff, who came to the country’s largest library organization after working in the White House and serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

She describes the library’s 3,200-person staff as “demoralized,” noting that the pressure to keep up with changing technological developments while managing a collection that holds more than 160 million items and having oversight over the complex world of copyright law can often be overwhelming.

The debate over the Library’s relationship with technology has long been viewed as fraught. In the 1990s, the Library was seen as an early adopter of the Internet, bringing troves of Congressional records online in 1995 with the service Thomas.gov.

But since then, questions about the library’s own technological struggles – including reports that it did not know how many computers it owned, lacked a dedicated person in charge of technology and did not have full control over the Copyright Office it was tasked with overseeing – have fueled questions about Billington’s leadership. Unlike almost every high-level government position except the Supreme Court, the Librarian of Congress is a lifetime appointment, leading some critics to suggest that Billington, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has possibly overstayed his welcome.

“It used to be the king of all libraries,” Suzanne Thorin, dean emerita of Syracuse University and Billington’s former chief of staff, told the Washington Post in March, following the release of two scathing reports by the Government Accountability Office pointing to the library’s lack of management over its own IT infrastructure. “Maybe it’s benign neglect, but I don’t see it at the center anymore.”

The Library did not respond to a request for comment from the Monitor. But in March, Billington told the Post that he intended to remain at the helm, saying the library was still in a key position compared to other libraries around the world. “We’re still taking the lead,” he told the paper. “Everybody else didn’t take the lead.”

But critics of several actions taken by the Copyright Office disagree.

“There’s the perception that the Library isn’t endowed with the sort of leadership to move in the 20th century, to say nothing of the 21st,” says Matt Schruers, vice president of law and policy at the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a trade group based in Washington. He points to one specific example involving adaptive technologies used by people with disabilities.

Every three years, the Office reviews the regulations in the 1998 copyright act, issuing recommendations which are then endorsed by the library but can be reversed by Congress. Backed by entertainment industry groups who worried about people bootlegging their work using then-new digital technology, the act made it illegal to break digital locks placed on many books, movies, and music by the companies that distribute them.

But one consequence of the act is that such locks, known as digital rights management (DRM), can also prevent the use of adaptive technologies such as screen readers, which help many blind and disabled people access books by translating them into Braille or reading them aloud. As with the cellphone-unlocking bill, the use of adaptive technologies is covered by an exemption to the 1998 act.

In 2009, the Copyright Office suggested that adaptive tech should no longer be protected by an exemption. If enacted, DRM could then stop text-to-speech programs from working. Unlike in the case of the phone-unlocking bill, Billington overruled that recommendation, averting a possible showdown with Congress.

Mr. Schruers said this pointed to a need for more control over the Copyright Office’s actions, which would require a leader more engaged with technology than Billington.

“Far too often it seems, there hasn’t been any oversight, where one might have thought it would be possible to see the disaster coming before it arrived,” he says.

The Copyright Office’s wide-ranging jurisdiction has also sparked a debate about whether it should become an independent agency once the Obama administration appoints a new Librarian of Congress. Maria Pallante, who was appointed as Register of Copyright in 2011, has argued recently that the Office should be further modernized and made independent, a proposal supported by some lawmakers and entertainment industry groups.

But Schruers says given the library’s long-running struggles with technology, this is the wrong approach.

“You don’t respond to weak performance with more autonomy, you respond with more oversight,” he says, noting that the Office had also supported the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act in 2011, which was abandoned after a broad public campaign against it.

CCIA, which represents a broad group of technology companies, has joined with several other technology policy and library groups, including the American Library Association, to call for a more modern agency, but one that is still under the control of the Library of Congress.

There’s also the question of who will take the helm of what’s often been called America’s "national library."

Sheketoff, of the American Library Association, says the Obama administration should consider naming a working librarian to the position. Only one other previous Librarian, L. Quincy Mumford, who served from 1954 to 1974, held a library degree, though whether he was the only working librarian in the position is disputed.

“It’s so important that this position be filled by a 21st century librarian,” Sheketoff says. “When the library was created it was a tremendous asset to the Congress for research, it was a great place to come and look at the temple of books. But now, in 2015, it needs to be so much more.”

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