Who's Gonna Lead the Library of Congress?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday was a busy day for library news. First, the Pew released its annual report on Americans and libraries; my colleague Adrienne glosses it well. Most interesting to me was that more than half of respondents wanted a 3-D printer in their local branch.

Second, Politico reports that Walter Isaacson—the former editor of Time magazine, current CEO of the Aspen Institute, and one-time biographer of Steve Jobs—has passed on the vacant Librarian of Congress post. The Librarianship is a surprisingly powerful position:

He or she runs the largest library in the world, oversees the U.S. Copyright Office (which comes with its own perks), and gets to serve as long as they want. The outgoing librarian, James Billington, has ruled since 1987.

And buried in Politico’s story is something of a shortlist for the gig:

Other names still under consideration include University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann; John Palfrey, the head of school at Phillips Academy and the former head of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society; former American Library Association President Carla Hayden; Susan Hildreth, former director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency; and Deborah Jacobs, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Libraries Initiative, according to multiple sources. Also in the mix are Archivist of the United States David Ferriero and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive.

Of that list, I’m particularly intrigued by Amy Gutmann, a distinguished scholar in her own right; David Ferriero, who has declared himself a “huge fan” of Wikipedia; and Brewster Kahle, who, well, founded the Internet Archive. Kahle is probably the most successful digital archivist ever; he also has an ongoing project to preserve all the world’s books in climate-controlled shipping containers. I’m not sure he should abandon his post at the Archive to take over the LOC, but, then again, few might be as knowledgeable about digitization, one of the major challenges facing the institution.

More to come, surely. In the meantime, if you’re wondering what the community of actual American librarians wants out of the Congressional one, I recommend Jessamyn West’s online primer: “The Librarian of Progress.”