In the months following incumbent Librarian of Congress James Billington’s retirement, some conservatives have coalesced around the idea that the next person to head the library ought to be a prestigious scholar, rather than a professional library administrator like Carla Hayden — President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed Billington.
But in their rush to make choosing the next librarian a partisan issue, these critics have failed to give proper consideration to the library’s unique challenges – or the skills needed to modernize and make accessible the tremendous wealth of knowledge in its collection.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation scholar who focuses on civil justice and election issues, lays out the most in-depth case against Hayden in a series of articles at the conservative outlet PJ Media.
To start off, von Spakovsky suggests Obama chose Hayden because she’s a black woman and “his administration has an unofficial quota system.” A remarkable sentiment, considering Hayden’s qualifications as a librarian: She has a doctorate in library science from the University of Chicago; taught at the University of Pittsburgh; served as CEO of the City of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, one of the oldest public library systems in the nation; served as president of the American Library Association; and was named National Librarian of the Year.
Despite her accomplishments, and a favorable Senate confirmation hearing, von Spakovsky insists Hayden is “unqualified.” She may be a fine librarian, he argues, but she’s “neither a scholar nor a historian” and the Library of Congress is an institution that must be run by a “man of letters”:
The librarian of Congress is, in effect, the nation’s scholar-in-chief. Retired incumbent James H. Billington, who left the position in 2015, authored five books, dozens of scholarly articles, and was the former director of the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He also taught history at Harvard and Princeton.
Billington had earned renown as a scholar of Russian and European history. He taught at prestigious universities, published in peer-reviewed journals and contributed to the body of human knowledge. But does that mean he was any good at being the librarian of Congress?
The Reagan appointee was quietly pushed out after a series of scandals and repeated criticism of the library’s management and inability to keep up in the modern era. After he announced his plan to retire, Billington’s subordinates were happy to see him go. As the Washington Postreports:
[T]he reaction inside the library was almost gleeful, as one employee joked that some workers were thinking of organizing a conga line down Pennsylvania Avenue. Another said it felt like someone opened a window.
Similarly, as The New York Times reports, he was widely criticized for resisting efforts to modernize the library and for mismanaging digitization efforts:
[Billington] presided over a series of management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies … In a 2013 audit, the library’s inspector general warned that millions of items, some from as far back as the 1980s, remained piled in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world. In addition, just a small fraction of its 24 million books are available to read online.
Indeed, a scathing 2015 Government Accountability Office report (just one in a long series of such reports) concluded the library “lacks [the] strong leadership needed to address its information technology management weaknesses.”
This sentiment was shared by members of Congress in charge of overseeing the library. At Hayden’s confirmation hearing, Joint Committee on the Library Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., characterized the library under Billington’s decades-long tenure as an institution “struggling really to adapt to a new century.” Nor could Billington hold on to subordinates, with deputy librarians leaving every other year, on average, while he was in office.
Up until last year, serving as head of the library was a lifetime appointment with no formal requirements. In light of Billington’s mixed legacy and retirement, bipartisan legislation was fast-tracked to impose a renewable term limit of 10 years, which will apply to Hayden if she is confirmed.
Would it not be a good idea to put a professional library administrator like Hayden, who has atrack record managing infrastructure modernization for a major library system, in charge of the nation’s top library as it faces similar challenges? Not according to von Spakovsky, who confidently asserts the nation’s leading repository of knowledge not only doesn’t need to be run by a professional librarian, but that it shouldn’t be.
Von Spakovsky, to bolster a weak argument, also appeals to tradition to oppose Hayden. Since the Library of Congress was created by an act of Congress in 1800, there have been 13 librarians. Not all were esteemed scholars. The first librarian of Congress, John J. Beckley, was a politician, campaign manager and former clerk of the House of Representatives. Other librarians came from a wide range of professional backgrounds, which have included physicians, journalists, poets, lawyers and also several experienced library administrators.
So where did this idea that the librarian needed to be a “scholar-in-chief” come from? Look no farther than Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was looking outside the library establishment in 1939 when he nominated Archibald MacLeish – a Harvard-educated writer and poet known as a promoter of Roosevelt’s own policies (nicknamed “poet-laureate of the New Deal”) – as the next librarian:
From the start President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked outside the library profession for a successor to Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam. In choosing MacLeish, Roosevelt followed the advice of his friend Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, who told the president that ‘only a scholarly man of letters can make a great national library a general place of habitation for scholars.’ The nomination was announced at a press conference on June 6, 1939, at which Roosevelt proclaimed that the job of Librarian of Congress required not a professional librarian but ‘a gentleman and a scholar.’
At the time, the American Library Association wrote a letter rebuking MacLeish’s nomination and criticizing his lack of qualifications, stating that:
Librarianship is not a literary pursuit. Writing itself is not a suitable preparation for it … the light disregard for ability suited to the job, so frequently manifested, explains why so much of the New Deal program has been badly administered.
Two of the three librarians who have succeeded MacLeish could fairly be considered “men of letters,” rather than professional library administrators. However, this happenstance is far from an inexorable fixture of the library’s history or the nature of the position of librarian.
If you look at the actual statutory responsibilities of the librarian of Congress (2 U.S.C. §§ 131-185), it turns out there’s no duty to produce original peer-reviewed research or prize-winning poetry (or write political speeches for FDR). There are, however, a lot of responsibilities relating to archival management, procurement of information technology and other services, promoting accessibility programs and educating the public. In other words – and this should really come as no shock – the librarian of Congress does the kinds of things you would expect a librarian to do.
It’s therefore peculiar to see so many conservatives toe the line that we need a “scholar-in-chief,” without thinking very deeply about it. For instance, the National Review editorial board’s complaint that Obama “politicizes” the library in nominating a professional library administrator like Hayden is as ridiculous as it is ironic for failing to understand its historical context. The original idea of nominating a “scholar-in-chief,” of course, was to politicize it.
Von Spakovsky also claims we should be concerned about the librarian’s influence over other offices housed in the library:
Members of Congress should be asking why there is such a hurry to put a non-scholarly political activist in charge of their research arm – the Congressional Research Service, which is within the Library of Congress.
Never mind that (per 2 U.S.C. §166) the librarian has no role whatsoever in telling CRS what positions to take:
[T]he Librarian of Congress shall grant and accord to the Congressional Research Service complete research independence and the maximum practicable administrative independence consistent with these objectives.
While the librarian has a role in appointing the heads of CRS and USCO, directly managing their day-to-day activities isn’t part of the librarian’s job. On the other hand, the librarian can have a big influence on fixing the failing IT infrastructure of both of these entities, in addition to the library broadly (an effort supported by major stakeholders on all sides).
Additionally, the librarian can help make the library’s vast collections available online; create new means of access for the disabled; increase engagement with stakeholders; better organize existing resources; and improve access to congressional information. But to accomplish these goals, we need a professional library administrator whose experience would help meet these challenges.
Scholars and poets are a fine thing, but they don’t know how to run a library any more than a former Federal Election Commission member like von Spakovsky. Criticisms that Hayden is not enough of a scholar are devoid of substance and shouldn’t deter the Senate from confirming her as the next librarian of Congress.
Reprinted with permission from R Street
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.