“World s Largest Library”

World Largest Library

library of congressInside the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. Library of Congress

The world's largest library needs a new leader.

Librarian of Congress James Billington announced this month that he plans to step down from the post he has held for almost 28 years. Mr. Billington's decision reopens the door to the modern era for the Library of Congress. President Obama should not just search for a successor; he should also invite a discussion on the suitable tenure and evaluation of the nation's chief librarian.

The Library of Congress is more than a magnificent building full of books. Besides maintaining an unparalleled collection, the librarian oversees the national copyright office and provides research and analysis to Congress — all this in a time when production and reproduction of information, music and video is moving faster than ever. The next librarian will need to develop a system to make existing materials searchable online and to digitize material as it comes in.

Traditionally, the post of librarian has gone to an eminent scholar. While an appreciation for the country's cultural history is essential, the library's needs demand technological savvy and managerial finesse as well as academic stature. Finding one individual with all these capabilities is admittedly a tall order. Whoever Mr. Obama picks — a seasoned librarian, a university president, a Silicon Valley executive — will need a strong supporting team.


But even the installation of a first-rate leader and team will not be enough to ensure the library's continued success. An esteemed Russia scholar with a deep understanding of the importance of writing and music in American life, Mr. Billington, now 86, assumed his post with innovative ideas like the American Memory and THOMAS projects, which put some collections and legislative information online. But as time passed, the library fell behind, failing to hire a chief information officer or keep pace with essential digitization efforts.

The United States has seen 44 presidents but only 13 librarians of Congress. Years of tradition — not the 1802 statute creating the position — have granted the post de-facto life tenure. It is time for a change. Tougher oversight and renewable terms based on performance would encourage librarians not to rest on their laurels and would help ensure that the quality of the librarian always matches the immense importance of the job.

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