James_H._Billington_8971James Billington, 86, departing January 1 as librarian of Congress, excelled in certain areas such as Russian history. But he was not a librarian by background, and many of the real McCoys hated him.

No small number of the library’s techies might have felt the same way. This Reagan-era appointee shunned e-mail and rarely picked up a cell phone.

And e-books? Forget it.

“Search techniques are embedded in e-books that invite people to dabble rather than follow  a full train of thought,” he said in 2011.

Yes, you can dabble. But Billington zeroed in on the negatives rather than such useful capabilities as keeping up with the doings and misdoings of characters in novels. What to make of mere page flipping of p-books? Is that dabbling, too?

I could go on, but others have pretty much covered the waterfront about Billington and technology.

Who to replace Billington?

“Names of potential replacements are already being mentioned by other librarians, researchers and scholars: Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan, or Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard; Amy E. Ryan, the president of the Boston Public Library, or Paul N. Courant, the former provost and librarian at the University of Michigan; Douglas Brinkley, the American historian,” the New York Times reports in mentioning some possible successors.

Meanwhile Courtney Young, president of the American Library Association, is calling for a Billington successor with expertise in such areas as management, leadership and technology.

How about a criterion to add to the list? A genuine love of reading—including the digital variety. Granted, the Library Congress is primarily a research library, with congressional needs at the top of the list. But given our literacy crisis and the need for solutions, couldn’t it potentially be much more?

Yes, the very act of reading counts more than the “how” or the medium. Still, to get a better sense of how the next librarian feels about both books and technology, the Obama Administration should ask prospective nominees these questions among many others:

1. How many books do you read for recreation in a typical year. Not for work. Not to impress peers. We’re after someone who can credibly talk up reading for fun, a key to improving literacy levels and academic achievement.

2. What genres do you read?

3. What are the last ten books that you read for fun?

4. What percentage of books do you read electronically?

5. Do you expect that percentage to be higher in the future? Why or why not?

6. How do you feel about the Digital Public Library of America’s insistence so far that we aim for one national digital library system rather than separate but intertwined systems—one primarily for the public, one for scholars? Is there a danger that a system dominated by academics and friends will pay less heed to digital divide issues and to mass promotion of recreational reading?

Speaking of the DPLA, where will it fit if the Library of Congress benefits from genuine 21st century leadership?

One unspoken reason for the DPLA’s creation was that LOC in many respects was so bleepin’ backwards. Now, ideally, that reason will soon be gone.

Is it possible that the DPLA could become part of the Library of Congress? As my postings to the LibraryCity site have indicated, the current DPLA is a long way from a genuine public library despite the recent election of the BPL’s Ryan as DPLA president. But organizations can change. Meanwhile the Library of Congress could go on to help create the academic digital library system.

The what-if game: Suppose Billington had cared more about tech. Is it possible that the Library of Congress could have contracted with private companies to create a powerful search engine, even before companies such as Alta Vista stepped in? Gasp, might LOC even have been receptive to my own TeleRead vision? Imagine an America during 1990s, with not just a national digital library system or systems but also e-book-capable tablets selling for $100 or well under. Bill Buckley wrote two “On the Right” columns in favor of the idea. But Washington snoozed. A more adventurous librarian of Congress could not have single-handedly made the TeleRead plan a reality, but a passionate innovator in Billington’s shoes certainly would not have hurt.

Image: "James H. Billington 8971" by slowking – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons.


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