In a month or six, the United States will get its first new Librarian of Congress in nearly three decades. The current librarian, James Billington, has held the title since his appointment by President Reagan in 1987. Though named by the president and confirmed by the Senate, the Librarian doesn’t change with every new White House. After being appointed, Librarians are free to serve as long as they want—that’s why there have been only 13 of them since 1802.
In other words, this will be the first time a new Librarian has been appointed since the invention of the web.
The Librarian is a surprisingly powerful role. In addition to claiming one of the best titles in government (though The Atlantic’s staff is split on whether “Senate Sergeant-at-Arms” or “U.S. Chief Justice” trump it), the new Librarian assumes considerable powers. This person will not only run the largest library in the world, with thousands of staff of its own, but also oversee the Copyright Office, the department which manages the U.S. copyright system. This gives them the power to declare what constitutes a copyright violation and what doesn’t.
And the new Librarian could hold a potentially transformative role: They could be the first Librarian, many experts say, to truly embrace the Internet as core to the Library’s mission. For although Billington sometimes used the web in innovative projects like Thomas.gov—a source of Congressional information online—the last decade had been marked by less expansion.