ATG NewsChannel Original: Building A True 21st Century Library Of Congress – Part 1: The End Of An Era

Nancy Hertherby Nancy K. Herther

(This is part 1 of a 2 part series. Click to view part 2)

On June 10th, 2015 Librarian of Congress (LnOC) James Hadley Billington announced his decision to retire from his position, noting in a video statement to his staff that “leading this great institution alongside all of you for nearly three decades has been the honor and joy of my 42 years of public service in Washington, D.C.” In the Library of Congress (LOC) press release announcing the retirement of Billington, his many accomplishments and history of the institution over the years of his tenure was stressed.


Billington was a highly-regarded academic and scholar, having taught at both Harvard and Princeton, then serving in leadership positions at the Fulbright Program  and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars before being appointed the 13th LnOC by President Reagan in 1987.  Under Billington’s leadership the LOC was able to attract significant private funding to support the Library, his biographical information noting that under his leadership the organization “raised more than half a billion dollars of private support to supplement Congressional appropriations. These private funds were used to increase Library collections, programs, and digital outreach. Billington created the Library’s first development office for private fundraising in 1987, and, in 1990, established the James Madison Council, the Library’s first national private sector donor-support group.  The LOC had made many significant advances.”

billington - source

James H. Billington

During his tenure the LOC certainly made significant accomplishments on many levels:

  • website in 1994 providing free public access to U.S. federal legislative information, and the 2012 release of website, “the official website for U.S. federal legislative information.”
  • eCo” online copyright registration, status-checking, processing, and electronic file upload systems in 2008.
  • The World Digital Library launched in 2009, and operates “with the support of the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), and in cooperation with libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions, and international organizations from around the world….[to make] available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from all countries and cultures.”
  • Cataloging standards and models such as Resource Description and Access (RDA)  and BIBFRAME in 2011 providing bibliographic support for library efforts to best describe collections and make them accessible in various channels.
  • Created the Braille and Audio Reading Download (BARD) Mobile app in 2013,  a “digital talking books mobile app for Braille and Audio Reading Downloads in partnership with the Library’s National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped,” that enables free downloading of audio and braille books to mobile devices.National Book Festival
  • Founded the National Book Festival, in 2000 that brings authors, readers and others to the National Mall each year to celebrate the book in all its forms.
  • Established the Kluge Centerwhich offers fellowships, programs, prizes and chairs focused on the humanities and social sciences, set up in 2000 with a grant of $60 million donation from John W. Kluge.
  • Built the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center with a donation of over $150 million from the Packard Humanities Institute to provide underground storage for a collection housed “on 90 miles of shelving, together with extensive modern facilities for the acquisition, cataloging and preservation of all audio-visual formats.”
  • Established the highly-regarded Open World Leadership Center  in 2000, which operates professional exchanges for emerging post-Soviet leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and the other successor states of the former USSR to visit counterparts in the United States.

Yet, clearly these are only a few of the accomplishments of the LOC under Billington’s leadership.


The LnOC in the 21st century is broad-based and complex.  For fiscal year 2014, the LOC reported these statistics:

  • Responded to over 593,000 congressional reference requests; as well as providing online information through the CRS website over 656,000 times and delivered about 20,600 volumes from the Library’s collections to congressional offices.
  • Registered 476,298 claims to copyright through its U.S. Copyright Office.
  • Provided reference services to 467,000 people.
  • Circulated over 23 million copies of Braille and recorded materials magazines to over 890,000 blind and physically handicapped reader accounts.
  • Circulated over 982,000 items for use within the Library.
  • Preserved over 7 million items from the Library’s collections.
  • Recorded or cataloged 160,775,469 physical items in the collections, including: Over 1.45 million visitors – with another 78.1 million online visitors, often using the LOC’s 52.3 million online primary-source files.

Library of Congress library-74038_1280

Additionally, the LOC employs 3,138 permanent staff members and operated with a total fiscal 2014 appropriation of $618.8 million. Compared to LOC, all other libraries pale.

Beyond this, the LOC is an agency of the legislative branch of the U.S. government, organized into seven service units. In addition to library-related operations, LOC includes these key agencies :

  • The U.S. Copyright Office administers the copyright laws of the nation and registers copyrightable material; its deposits of intellectual material such as books, music, and movies substantially contribute to the Library’s collections. (
  • The Congressional Research Service “is well-known for analysis that is authoritative, confidential, objective and nonpartisan. Its highest priority is to ensure that Congress has 24/7 access to the nation’s best thinking.”
  • The Law Library provides Congress and the legislative process with comprehensive research on foreign, comparative, international, and U.S. law, and other legal reference services.
  • The Office of Strategic Initiatives ( leads our national program for long- term preservation of digital cultural assets, leads efforts to develop consolidated digital future plans, and integrates the delivery of information technology (IT) services.
  • The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) established by Billington “in 1988 as a non-statutory office deriving its authority from the Librarian of Congress. The OIG became statutory with the passage of The Library of Congress Inspector General Act of 2005, with a mandate to: Independently conduct and supervise audits and investigations of fraud, waste, and abuse, relating to the Library; lead, coordinate, and recommend policies to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness; and keep the Librarian of Congress and the Congress fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies relating to the administration and operations of the Library.”


Billington was the 13th LnOC and throughout the history of the institution the selection of this leader has been very uneven: “Poets, playwrights, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, and indeed, librarians. They have frequently functioned as cultural ambassadors to the world, and in a sense, as the de facto U.S. Secretary of Culture” noted an American Libraries article.

Throughout the 19th century, the position was often filled by political cronies rather than by professionals in related professions or proven administrators. From 1864 to 1987, American Libraries noted, “a variety of LnOC were appointed, including a bookseller, journalist, and a lawyer who had experience administering two sizable libraries; a poet and playwright; a government worker; a historian; and an actual certified librarian with administrative experience in libraries.”

Billington came in with strong academic credentials and experience managing other national cultural institutions. Despite his forced resignation, he has received high marks from many legislators and cultural leaders. Perhaps the real problem for Billington was the volatility of his era. When Ronald Reagan nominated him in 1987, CDs and CD-ROMs were the new wave, there was no Napster, commercial internet or World Wide Web. The PS/2 and HyperCard had just been released. Google and Amazon were about ten years away. The serials crisis had yet to foment library efforts to search for alternatives.

Copyright Office logo


In his first year as LnOC, Billington asked the GAO to conduct the first library-wide audit, which began the process of annual financial audits of the LOC.  However, over the years, the audits found weaknesses that were never resolved by the library.

The September 2014 Semiannual report of the Office of the Inspector General of the LOC  found two major issues that lacked attention first brought to the LOC leadership years before: Technology and overall strategic management. However, these weren’t the first signs of trouble.

In 2009, the The Office of the Inspector General issued an audit report that focused broadly on the Library’s plan for managing its IT infrastructure investments. The audit examined: “whether the Library’s IT Strategic Plan aligned with its overall strategic plan; the validity and integrity of the IT plan; the appropriateness and effectiveness of the Library’s IT organizational structure and placement; and the extent to which relevant recommendations made by the National Research Council in a 2000 report were implemented by the Library.”

The OIG report concluded with a series of recommendations targeting: “Maturing the Library’s IT strategic planning process; making IT investments from a cost/benefit and institution-wide perspective; considering organizational changes; implementing an enterprise architecture program for planning future technology; and improving customer service.”

However, by late 2011, in a follow-up report, the OIG found thatthe Library was implementing our recommendations, but the progress was slower than anticipated. The implementation of these recommendations has been delayed several times and pushed out to FY 2015.”

In FY 2014, the OIG contracted with CliftonLarsonAllen, LLPto perform a review of the Library’s Alternate Computing Facility, the Systems Development Lifecycle, and Certification and Accreditation. CliftonLarsonAllen identified issues similar to those we identified in our previous reports of the Library’s IT infrastructure investments. Also in FY 2014, the OIG awarded a task order to assess the Library’s current digitization plan and its impact on the strategic planning, enterprise architecture, budgeting, performance management, and IT governance infrastucture processes. Additionally, we issued a second task order to determine whether the design of the Library’s internal control system provides assurance that oversight by the Information Technology Steering Committee is sufficient to identify and oversee qualifying IT systems.”

In 2014, the U.S. House of Representatives Legislative Branch Subcommittee on Appropriations tasked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with “evaluating, among other items, the Library’s strategic planning, governance structure, security, and capital planning and investment control processes for IT. As part of this evaluation, GAO will also review the Copyright Office’s proposed modernization upgrade. GAO anticipates issuing their results in March 2015.”

In a 2015 GAO report“Organizationally, responsibility for managing the office’s IT environment is shared between the Copyright Office’s Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) and the Library’s central IT office. The Library has serious weaknesses in its IT management, which have hindered the ability of the Library and the Copyright Office to meet mission requirements. For example, the Library has not had a permanent CIO in over 2 years.”

As reports on the lackluster operation of the LOC piled up and by early 2015 there began to be stinging criticism from the library profession, Congress, and the pages of such key newspapers as the New York Times, which noted that “management and technology failures at the library that were documented in more than a dozen reports by government watchdog agencies” in the past ten years.


ATG contacted Joel Willemssen, the lead author of the 2015 GAO study, to inquire about the relationship between the GAO’s assessments and the role of the LOC Office of the Inspector General.  His response referred to “the mission of GAO is to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people. We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair, and balanced.”

“Regarding recent evaluations by GAO of aspects of the Library of Congress and Copyright Office,” he continues, “the House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the 2015 legislative branch appropriations bill required GAO to conduct a review of IT management at the Library. In addition, the Senate Appropriations Committee report accompanying the 2015 legislative branch appropriations bill required GAO to review the Copyright Office’s current IT environment and plans for the future. In March 2015, we concluded our audit work in response to these two mandates and issued reports on the Library’s management of the IT supporting its programs and operations (GAO-15-315) and the Copyright Office’s IT environment and plans for modernization (GAO-15-338). We also summarized these two reports in a recent testimony (GAO-16-197T) in December 2015.”

When asked about the relationship to the LOC’s own internal evaluations, he replied that “with respect to the Library’s OIG, according to its website, it oversees all Library of Congress programs and operations and has the independence to decide which activities to review. It conducts audits, investigations, and other reviews, and also operates a hotline so that anyone can report suspected infractions related to Library activities. The Library’s OIG has also performed recent work relating to IT management at the Library.”


Peter S. Menell

Peter S. Menell

In his analysis, Economic Analysis of Copyright Notice: Tracing and Scope in the Digital Age, UC Berkeley Law Professor Peter S. Menell shares with ATG a short history of the early years of the Copyright Office:  “In 1846, Congress established the Smithsonian Institution and sought to build its collection by requiring that one copy of each copyrighted work be delivered to the Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution within three months of publication. Charles Jewett, the first librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, extolled the preservation, access, and scholarly virtues of copyright deposit, proclaiming the “importance, immediate and prospective, of having a central depot, where all the products of the American press may be gathered, year by year, and preserved for reference.” To facilitate building this archive, Jewett advocated that publishers be able to transmit deposit copies free of postage, a proposal which Congress enacted in 1855.”

“Practical problems ensued in managing the national knowledge archive, Menell’s account continues. “The Smithsonian Institution was inundated with materials considered of relatively low archival value (textbooks, music, and prints) and that were difficult to store, whereas many publishers of substantial research works failed to comply with the deposit requirement. This problem was exacerbated by a judicial decision holding that failure to deposit a work at the national repository, unlike failure to deposit a copy with the district court, had no effect on copyright protection. In 1870, Congress centralized registration, deposit, and copyright administration within the Library of Congress.” Given the Library’s role as a depository, this made sense then.  However, in his opinion, Menell believes that “the LOC has a different mission than traditional government agencies. It makes more sense in the long run to house the Copyright Office in a more traditional regulatory/policy institution.”


On June 9th 2015 Billington sent a letter of resignation to President Obama which focused on his gratitude for having been able to serve in this key role, and announcing his retirement as of January 1, 2016.  After 28 years as LnOC and 42 years in Washington cultural administration, the 86-year-old was reported to have changed; that staff no longer recognize the charismatic, energetic librarian they once knew. They say he has slowed down so much that he rarely comes in before noon or works a full week in his majestic office overlooking Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court. Co-workers say that he does not use email and that they often communicate with him through a fax machine at his house.”  (See Library of Congress Chief Retires Under Fire.)

Although some came to his defense, even Congressional members publicly asked for review of the LOC and its operations.  Former colleagues and library leaders began to publicly demand change. Robert Darnton, a colleague of Billington’s at Princeton and now director of the Harvard University Library, was quoted in the New York Times saying that “I think that James Billington should resign. We should have a new librarian of Congress.”  (See Library of Congress Chief Retires Under Fire.Even after his formal retirement announcement, the criticism continued; leading Billington to move up his retirement to the end of September 2015. As a public institution and the world’s largest library, in an age of information and technology, there was little alternative but to seek change.

Lawyer, librarian and copyright expert Kenneth Crews sees the LnOC role as becoming increasingly complicated yet essential. “The next LnOC needs to fit a tough description. “The Librarian needs to be an intellectual leader and a political acrobat. The Librarian needs to shape the research collections of one of the greatest libraries in the world, while also supervising and inspiring an extensive, diverse, and outstanding staff. The Librarian needs to help share the treasures of the LOC with the public, while also nimbly meeting the information needs of Congress. The Librarian every day must enjoy the challenges and constantly make large and small decisions with the public mission of the institution always at the fore.”

With Billington’s forced retirement, day-to-day oversight of the institution was handed to Acting LnOC and former Law Librarian at LOC, David S. Mao on October. 1st.   Although he continues in this acting role, the LOC has since named a permanent Law Librarian of Congress, Roberta I. Shaffer, former Law Librarian of Congress from 2009-2011.  Although Obama has widely been reported to have asked at least two well-known writers to take the LnOC position (both declining), the issue of where we go from here is still unsettled and perhaps the most critical than any time in LOC history.

David S. Mao

David S. Mao


No one denies Billington’s accomplishments as a scholar or in his office as LnOC.  However, due to lack of vision or leadership – or lack of strong oversight – Billington’s downfall was clearly in the cards. Not that he lacked significant accomplishments, but that his leadership lacked performance and vision in two key areas: Positioning the LOC as a global leader in information practice; and in the development of information policies and programs to ensure fair and equitable access to all. Copyright has become a major issue in all aspects of information creation, access and use. The LOC needs to be at the center of these issues and using the role of chief copyright officer for the United States to advocate for fair and equitable access to the world’s information here and abroad.

What can we expect in the coming year?  Will Congress and the President act quickly to fill this role?  Will librarians and public intellectuals lead the push for a new agenda, a new era for information policy? In Part 2 of this series, we look at these issues from a variety of perspectives.

Nancy K. Herther is Librarian for American Studies, Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities Campus.

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