D-Lib Magazine
October 2000

Volume 6 Number 10

ISSN 1082-9873

LC21 - Hopes and Cautions for the Library of Congress


James J. O'Donnell
University of Pennsylvania
[email protected]

Red Line


It is the Library of Congress's fate to be a symbol as well as a library. It shares with the ancient library of Alexandria the curse of standing for an ill-conceived acme of library perfection -- total comprehensiveness. But if Borges's Funes the Memorious discovered that to remember everything will drive a person mad, so a library knows that to collect everything is madness as well. The Library of Congress (LC) has never succumbed to that madness. Instead, its inspired leaders for two centuries have built a working collection that dwarfs all others in size but remains selective, rich, and accessible. That is no small achievement.

But LC builds its comprehensive collections for an equally comprehensive audience: the Congress and the people of the United States. We pride ourselves on the free access to information of our public libraries, for example, but it remains an intriguing fact that the freedom of access to information that we value in our libraries is always linked to membership in a community. To use a library's full resources, we typically have to live in the right town or be part of the right university. That limitation in traditional librarianship means that librarians have the great benefit of being able to hear from their customers, the satisfied ones and the angry ones. Customers give librarians focus and help them make the inevitable choices among desirable goals, help them focus their collections and services.

LC thus looks for direction not chiefly to its customers but to a 'board of directors' with 535 members -- the House and Senate. But LC is scarcely their first priority, nor should it be. Furthermore, Representatives and Senators get their own needs attended to by a branch of LC, the Congressional Research Service, which is something between a tenured faculty and the most amazingly skilled reference staff in history. Members of Congress will thus have at best imperfect knowledge of the body they are obliged to guide.

For many years, it was possible for LC to evolve peacefully in such an environment. But the onslaught of digital information and the excitement surrounding it are destabilizing for any library. Without a clearly-defined client base to serve and satisfy, LC is at a disadvantage. Even so, it has responded in several ways, notably with the "National Digital Library Program" -- misleadingly named but worthy, an effort, now successful, to digitize 5,000,000 documents from the library's collections. With that program came some shift of emphasis within the traditional mission and audience. For the first time, LC now explicitly addresses "kids and families" with <>, offering to help readers "meet amazing Americans" (legend next to an image of George Armstrong Custer), among other things. On other fronts, the Law Library is working to build a database of world legal materials, and the Copyright Office has struggled to devise a system for receiving deposit and registering copyright for digital materials.

But the whole still adds up to something less than the sum of its parts, and there has been no clear digital vision for the organization as a whole. To his great credit, the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington, recognized the anomie and sought expert counsel. In 1998, he initiated and funded an eighteen-month study of LC and its response to the information technology revolution to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences through the National Research Council (to be specific, through NRC's Computer Science and Telecommunications Board). I was asked to chair the committee and worked with NRC to build a panel of another 15 experts (librarians, computer scientists, media specialists, etc.) from around the country, including several members of the National Academies themselves (a fuller listing with biographies also available). The committee visited LC many times, consulted broadly within and without the organization, and had the benefit as well of NRC's standard blind peer review process, by which findings were submitted to 24 experts and the committee was then obliged to respond to their comments and criticisms.

This work is now complete. The report was released in near-published form on the web in July and will appear in print form for sale through National Academy Press later this year as LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress. Given the interest of the material and its ready availability on the web, I will not rehearse the report in detail here, but will rather try first to touch on a few of the high points and then to offer a guide to its resources. The process has been vastly educational and an intellectual pleasure for all those of us who worked on it. We are left with a sense of the exciting importance of the issues and possibilities, and with caution and concern whether LC will be able to respond successfully.

The chief finding in substance is that LC has not yet begun to grapple successfully with its responsibility to select, acquire, and preserve materials that are "born digital" -- that is, that first come to being in electronic form. "Born digital material" includes CD-ROM publication and the like, but is dominated by web-based material, both the commercially-published material and the waterfall of web material that is not thought of in terms of conventional publication but that is, much of it, of high value as "a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations" (as the Library's mission statement puts it). Successful response by LC to the challenge of "born digital" material would include creating a seamless system that allows it to enforce the mandatory deposit provisions of US law by acquiring, selecting, cataloging, and making accessible material in electronic form. The difficulties of the task are immense, and LC at this point has done no more than nibble at the edges with small pilot programs. The report urges a major effort. It is an effort that can only succeed if it is made not by LC alone, but by LC in collaboration with publishers, libraries, and technologists around the country and around the world.

The chief subordinate finding is that there are management issues within LC that have conspired to make it hard to react in a timely and effective way. These range from misalignment of priorities in IT budgeting to extraordinary difficulties in human resources areas (not just in paying technical staff but in dealing with the legacy of a lawsuit filed by its own employees that has left the Library constrained by the terms of a consent decree aimed at uprooting past inequities) to limited vision and expertise at the top of the organization. LC is not one organization but a collection of organizations, often working independently. What it needs now at the center is synthetic vision and authority that can bring units together to work effectively to create a new kind of library. Accordingly, the report recommends appointment of a new Deputy Librarian for Strategic Initiatives.

At this writing, LC has welcomed the report and declared firmly its intention to respond positively and effectively. Among the procedural recommendations are suggested new bodies to facilitate vision: internally, an IT Vision, Strategy, Research and Planning Group, and externally, a Technical Advisory Board serving pro bono to keep the Library on its toes. The members of the committee look forward to following developments closely in the months to come.

Readers of D-LIB can approach the whole report at, but those who must run and read may want to select among these points of entry:

1. Executive Summary (including tabulation of recommmendations)

2. The first chapter has a broad survey of general applicability about the state of librarianship today.

3. The Afterword offers concluding thoughts and encourages strategic vision and optimism.

4. Between there are individual chapters on the history of LC, on the challenge of digital collections, on preservation issues (perhaps the most acute technical challenges facing digital librarianship), metadata and access questions, and then three chapters on library-specific management issues.

Copyright© 2000 James J. O'Donnell

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DOI: 10.1045/october2000-odonnell