Dean’s Update: Library of Congress Nomination

Dean’s Update: Library of Congress Nomination
Danuta A. Nitecki
March 2, 2016

[The Dean's Update is a column introducing each issue of the Libraries' monthly e-newsletter In Circulation.]

Recently President Obama nominated Carla D. Haden for the position of Librarian of Congress. The action likely went unnoticed by many watchers of this year’s political theater, but for a minute it shed light on libraries during diverse speculations about their future. Reflecting on the country’s oldest federal cultural institution poses the mind-boggling question of what it takes to lead the largest library in the world. I do not presume to know what the “right stuff” is, but thought some of our readers might be interested to put academic libraries with which they are more familiar, in context against our country’s—and the world’s—leading research enterprise.

It should not surprise those spending time in academia that Harvard University has the largest academic library in the world. Growing from a bequest in 1638 and 400 books, it now holds over 16 million volumes, spread over 73 library facilities. Its origins were to serve a specific purpose— Harvard College education and research. But as did the Library of Congress, it became an American cultural treasure of recorded knowledge that, true to values of democracy and freedom of information, became a resource for society. Its clients now extend beyond Harvard faculty and students to researchers around the world and the networks of libraries that serve them. The comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and breadth of collection became the signature of a great library.

The biggest university library, however, is outsized by three public library institutions in the U.S.. The New York State Library, with 20 million volumes, serves as part of the state’s Education Department with primary responsibility to serve the government of the state. The country’s biggest libraries established to serve the public are the Boston Public Library with nearly 22.5 million volumes and the New York Public Library with over 53 million volumes. The Library of Congress collection is larger than the total of these four strongholds of publications with over 160 million volumes. By size of collection alone, the Library of Congress is ten times the size of the largest university library—and for those curious about Drexel, over 160 times larger than our library system’s provision of print and electronic information resources.

The Library of Congress began in 1800 as a reference library for Congress, anticipating the topics on which legislators might wish to consult. The original collection of the Library was destroyed when the Capitol burned in 1814 and Thomas Jefferson offered his personal library to replace the loss. His gift of 6,487 books, accumulated over half a century in pursuit of curiosity, was accepted amidst some controversy as the retired president asserted that any field of science, literature, philosophy and others beyond law, as well as writings in languages beyond English, would be important to inform the Congress.

One might wonder what human resources are needed to manage such large collections. For comparison, let’s work our way up from the familiar. Drexel Libraries has a staff of 60 FTE, Harvard’s library staff numbers 1100, and New York Public Library staff size approaches 3000 people. The Library of Congress employees exceed 3600. New York Public has the largest reported visitor base with an annual count of 18 million visits. The Library of Congress, with priority services to support Congress through such specialized departments as Congressional Research Services, the Copyright Office, and its Law Library, records 1.75 million visitors.

The administrative requirements for such large dimensions of preserved and accessible collections, and service demands, are hard to imagine. Add to that the articulated need for new leadership to not just maintain these operations, but to transform them to meet rapidly changing provision of information and behaviors to utilize them in decision making—whether for federal legislation, academic scholarship, or daily life choices. The appointment of the 14th Librarian of Congress is an opportunity to reaffirm the importance of freedom of information among our social values; of leveraging amazing technologies to communicate, find, and use information; and of keen political expertise, wisdom, and leadership skills to direct and inspire an organization entrusted with far reaching responsibilities.

The replacement of James H. Billington, who served as the Librarian of Congress for 28 years, begins with a presidential nomination and requires Senate approval. If appointed, Carla Hayden will be the first woman, first African American, and only the third professional educated librarian filling this position . Since 1993 she has led the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, currently serving as its CEO. She has served as the president of the American Library Association, and holds both a master’s and doctorate degree in library science from the University of Chicago. Known to the Obama family since her earlier days at the Chicago Public Library, the president acknowledged that Dr Hayden “has devoted her career to modernizing libraries so that everyone can participate in today's digital culture. She has the proven experience, dedication, and deep knowledge of our nation’s libraries to serve our country well. ”

No one could possibly be fully prepared for this unique position. The current choice is applauded for its recognition of the profession most engaged with libraries and the potential that its education and extensive experience can bring to their future impact in leading the world’s grandest library. It also acknowledges the importance of the Library of Congress in serving the country’s populations, including academics at Drexel, by extending its responsibilities beyond the needs of Congress. Or perhaps, another way to view this shift is that Congress will be better served when the country’s citizenry is well informed. The timing seems most appropriate as we approach this year’s presidential election.

Danuta A. Nitecki, PhD
Dean of Libraries