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The Library of Congress has an internet allergy


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For n+1, Kyle Chayka writes about the Library of Congress and its apparent allergy to new technology. Chayka traces LOC’s failure to take advantage of digitization and other technologies to its octogenarian now-former head, the academic Dr. James H. Billington–a name fit for a WASPy luddite. Read Chayka in partial below, or the full version via n+1.

IN 1990, THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS launched “American Memory,” its first digital pilot project. The LOC selected a handful of the 160 million objects in its collection to digitize, store on laserdiscs and CDs, and distribute to 44 schools and libraries across the country. Like so many pre-internet digital endeavors, American Memory was unsuccessful. According to the project’s retrospective website, the problem was tactile: “distributing these materials in CD-ROM format was both inefficient and prohibitively expensive.”

Within a few years, CDs were relics and the internet was proving an accessible space for digital innovation. In October 1994, the LOC announced the creation of the National Digital Library Program, or NDLP, a “systematic effort to digitize some of the foremost historical treasures in the Library . . . and make them readily available on the Web to Congress, scholars, educators, students, the general public, and the global Internet community.” By 1999, the NDLP had an annual budget of $12 million and over 100 employees. It had successfully digitized over 5 million objects—an unrecognized feat of the early internet.

Yet like American Memory, the NDLP proved to be a novelty, and it too tailed off. A 2001 digital strategy report, commissioned by the LOC and conducted by the National Research Council, concluded that the LOC’s digitization efforts were insufficient: only a tiny fraction of the Library’s collection had been uploaded. The report recommended an ambitious reorganization, one that would “systematically address the policies, procedures, and infrastructure required for [the LOC] to collect diverse types of digital resources and to integrate them into its systems for description and cataloging, access, and preservation.” The LOC needed to commit itself to the internet.

Fifteen years later, the report’s recommendations remain recommendations. In March 2015, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office painted a bleak picture of the LOC’s technological infrastructure, finding “significant weaknesses” in strategic planning (there was no IT strategic plan); investment management (the LOC does not review all of its key investments, has no system for tracking spending, and misplaced 10,000 computers); and leadership (the Library did not have a Chief Information Officer from 2012 to late 2015).

The report confirmed that the LOC had lost touch with whatever mainstream American audiences it had reached in its initial digital programs. In the 2000s, Google Books and the European Union’s Europeana project demonstrated the potential of collaborative mass digitization and online accessibility, but the LOC had fallen behind. “The Library of Congress has been asleep at the switch,” John Palfrey, a library activist and head of school at Phillips Academy, told me. “It’s a national embarrassment.”

This digital failure occurred during the tenure of the 87-year-old Dr. James H. Billington, a Russia scholar who was appointed the Librarian of Congress by Ronald Reagan in 1987. By September 2015, when Billington retired “under fire,” as the New York Times headline had it, whatever early progress the LOC made on the internet seemed squandered. Responsibility for restoring the LOC’s digital mandate has fallen to his newly confirmed successor, Carla Hayden, the first Librarian of Congress of the 21st century. The job Hayden has before her is to prepare the Library to serve another century of US citizens where we’ve become most accustomed to consuming information: the internet.

*Image: Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Library of Congress. Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith