Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I'm bad, I'm nationwide

After holding the title for 24 years, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress is retiring effective January 1, 2016. Billington's announcement has sparked a conversation in LibraryLand about the future of the Library of Congress, specifically who should be the next Librarian of Congress. The Librarian of Congress is nominated by the President and is confirmed by the Senate. There have been 13 Librarians of Congress that have come from varied backgrounds. And as we wait to learn who will take over Billington's post, I would like to pose that we should also turn our attention to the Library of Congress as a whole.

You may not know this, but the Library of Congress is not the U.S. National Library. In fact, the U.S. doesn't have a national library. Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is an agency of the legislative branch. The Library of Congress encompasses several units, including: Office of the Librarian, Congressional Research Services, Copyright Office, Law Library, Library Services, Office of Strategic Initiatives, and Office of Support Operations. If you want to see how the Library of Congress is organized, you can view the organizational chart here.

It's clear that one of the responsibilities of the Library of Congress is providing research services to the members of Congress. It states on the Library of Congress general information page that in 2014, the Library responded to more than 593,000 reference requests by members of Congress. But let's talk about some other things that the Library of Congress does.

If you look at that organizational chart I linked to earlier, you'll notice that under the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Directorate lives the Policies and Standards Division. What you may not know about the Policy and Standards Division is that it is the keeper of the Library of Congress Classification System and of Library of Congress Subject Headings. Proposals for additions to and changes of both are reviewed at weekly meetings and the outcomes are posted online. In addition to this work, the Policy and Standards Division works on projects like the Library of Congress Demographic Group Terms that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

The Acquisitions and Bibliographic Directorate is also home to the Program for Cooperative Cataloging and the Catalogers Learning Workshop. The Program for Cooperative Cataloging is described on its website as:
an international cooperative effort aimed at expanding access to library collections by providing useful, timely, and cost-effective cataloging that meets mutually-accepted standards of libraries around the world.
The members of the PCC not only create bibliographic and authority records, but they set policy and create training materials.

While none of this work directly benefits the Congressional constituency that the Library of Congress is meant to serve, the work of the Acquisitions and Bibliographic Directorate does serve the Library's mission. From its website:
The Library's mission is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.
But because it isn't the U.S. National Library, its staff ultimately has its patrons and its workload to consider. And, like many of our own libraries, its staff has to figure out how to manage its workload under the strain of tight financial times. Unlike many of our own libraries, though, when the Library of Congress discontinues a portion of its work, it leaves a gap in the library community that has to be addressed by stakeholders.

Take, for example, the 2006 decision that the Library of Congress made to discontinue the creation and update of series authority records and to discontinue providing controlled access points for series in bibliographic records for resources that are part of a series. The Program for Cooperative Cataloging eventually took over responsibility for creating policy and training in this area, but this decision caused significant disruption for U.S. libraries.

While the Library of Congress has long served as the de facto U.S. National Library, I think the change in leadership at the Library provides a timely backdrop for a conversation about whether or not the Library of Congress should be given the official title of U.S. National Library. I think it is especially timely, given that in early 2015 the Program for Cooperative Cataloging unveiled a document relating to the strategic vision of the Program for 2015-2017.

Admittedly, it's more interesting to think about who the next Librarian of Congress should be and what qualifications they should have. Admittedly, the conversation regarding the establishment of a U.S. National Library has the potential to be boring. But as we grapple with the adoption of RDA and the move toward a post-MARC future, it's a conversation we need to have.

Stay positive,

ps--The title of the post is a reference to a ZZ Top song and shouldn't be taken as some kind of indication of my feelings regarding this topic.

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