×

Commentary: Choosing New Librarian of Congress

Why Is This Outspoken Librarian Celebrating?

  • Jessamyn West, middle, raises her arms in victory after helping Jim and Joanne Gorbey, of Chelsea, recover a photograph of their grandchildren that Jim accidentally deleted during West's drop-in computer class for adults at the Randolph Technical Career Center in Randolph, Vt. Tuesday, April 5, 2016. West, a librarian and blogger, was consulted by the White House during the process of choosing a new Librarian of Congress to replace James Billington who held the position from 1987 to 2015. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessamyn West, of Randolph, Vt., is a librarian and library activist. In addition to her work with the Internet Archive's Open Library, she teaches a drop-in computer class for adults, and blogs about library issues. Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lewis Stowell, of Brookfield, looks for a model number on his laptop computer while Jessamyn West, of Randolph, helps him update utility software during an adult education technology drop-in class at the Randolph Technical Career Center Tuesday, April 5, 2016. West started the blog Librarian.net in 1999 and describes herself as a library activist. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jessamyn West, of Randolph, Vt., is a librarian and library activist. In addition to her work with the Internet Archive's Open Library, she teaches a drop-in computer class for adults, and blogs about library issues. Tuesday, April 5, 2016. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, April 07, 2016

In February, President Obama nominated Carla Hayden as the next librarian of Congress.

If you’re not a librarian, or someone who relies on libraries for scholarship or information, it might be hard to discern why Hayden’s appointment matters. Doesn’t everyone who can access Google on a smartphone have the world at their fingertips?

Yes and no. Libraries and the people who run them maintain an outsize influence over what information is available in the public sphere. Where corporations, particularly in the entertainment business, want their intellectual property to remain in their hands until money is on the table, librarians know what’s public, and what should be available to all, free of charge.

The librarian of Congress sets the tone for “the decisions we make about how to preserve and protect, but also share our cultural heritage,” said Jessamyn West, a Randolph resident who fits an unusual two-word descriptor: “influential librarian.” She talked to the White House last year about what the president should be looking for in the next leader of the world’s largest library.

West, 47, writes and talks about libraries around the country, was a member of the American Library Association council and is well known among her librarian peers as a tech-savvy voice in the conversation about how libraries should be run.

After James Billington announced his retirement under fire last June, ending his 28-year run at the Library of Congress as of Jan. 1, West put up a website, Librarian of PROgress, to point out nine areas in which the librarian of Congress could be doing great things.

For example, the librarian of Congress oversees the Copyright Office and could be a stronger voice for fair use and legal exemptions from copyright protections, a counterweight to the lobbying of the music and movie industries, which creates a chilling effect on fair use of copyrighted material.

The new librarian of Congress could be a leader in digitizing materials, and could advocate for making Congressional Research Service reports available to the public. The Library of Congress has a huge backlog of material waiting to be digitized, and needs to create better user interfaces so the public can access that stuff once it is online.

“It’s just weird that you should have to go to Wikipedia to search for stuff from the Library of Congress,” West said.

West writes occasionally for Medium, a news and culture website, as does Jason Goldman, who is the White House’s first ever chief digital officer. He asked West last year if she’d like to talk to someone in the administration about the next librarian of Congress. Of course she would.

In August, someone from the White House called and asked if she’d be available to talk the next day. She wrote up an account of her conversation with Valerie Green, director of personnel at the White House, and Amanda Moose, a special assistant to the president for personnel, at librarian.net.

“We talked for about 45 minutes about what the job of librarian of Congress entailed, where Billington didn’t help, what a new person could really do to change things, and why it matters,” West wrote. She also gave them a list of other people to talk to.

One thing West advocated early on was that the nominee should be a librarian. Billington was a scholar, and it has been 40 years since a full-fledged librarian has run the Library of Congress.

Hayden fits the bill. She directed Chicago’s public libraries and is currently the director of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. Among American librarians, her credibility is unquestioned.

“She’s worked at a number of really big library systems with challenges, and I think she’d done a really exceptional job of handling those challenges,” West said.

As head of the American Library Association in 2004, she stood up to then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was publicly deriding librarians’ reaction to the USA Patriot Act as “hysterical.”

The Patriot Act permitted the FBI to investigate library records while placing librarians under a gag order, unable to reveal whether their patrons were being investigated. Hayden was among the most prominent voices speaking against such provisions.

“She just called him up and said ‘I’m head of the biggest library association in the world, and I think we should talk.’” West said. Ashcroft, and Congress, were forced to back down, and Hayden raised the public profile of librarians, West said.

Likewise, West’s advocacy has made her something of a hero to her fellow librarians, a community not always known for spirited advocacy.

“To me it’s such a big deal,” she said.

Like many librarians, West was a Hayden fan from the start of the debate, both for her Patriot Act stance and for keeping Baltimore’s libraries open as safe public spaces during last year’s riots. “She was my pick,” West said. “I could not be happier.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.