Friday, August 07, 2015

Should the US Librarian of Congress be a Librarian or an Academic?

Slaw columnist Bob Berring published an important piece yesterday, and I'm afraid it's going to go under the radar.

Berring discusses the impending retirement of current US Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, who at 86 years of age will leave the post after 28 years. Billington, who is neither a Librarian or an information professional, has long been the subject of critique from within the profession. The Washington Post article that Berring cites gives a small glimpse into the failing ecosystem that evolved under Billington's tenure.

The assessment offered by Berring should be required reading for anyone working in Libraries, and yes, even in Canada. The US Library of Congress has always played a leading roles in guiding our profession's standards. Libraries, globally, didn't function in the same unified manner last century without a strong LC -- LC Classification, Control Numbers, Subject Headings, literacy movements -- it's role was academic, had cultural influence, offered professional cohesion, and was emulated widely.

The digital age, as we know, has created an entirely new set of challenges. While I don't think as a profession that we are exactly behind on those changes, what we do need is help to conceive and achieve much bigger ideas. Librarians have always been willing to roll up their sleeves, but big ideas don't happen without leadership. In my view, that's always been our biggest weakness: we really need better leaders.

The glimmer of hope for Berring, and me for that matter, is that there's a chance to bring in a new visionary. Do I care if that individual is an Academic or a Librarian? A little, I'll admit. But it's less of an issue about academic qualifications, and more about having a love for the work. I wouldn't turn down a Jonathan Zittrain or a Brewster Kahle.

The US Library of Congress is at a crossroad, and not just in recruiting a new leader, but whether it has a leadership role to play for the profession. Can librarians look to the LC for unifying guidance the way they once did? Perhaps. But what we won't survive is another country club retirement gig for an aging academic.

We won't. It's that simple.