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Librarian of Congress gets a Due Date

FILE - In this April 21, 2009 file photo, Librarian of Congress James Billington is seen in Paris. Billington, the librarian of Congress who led the world's largest library for three decades, has retired. The post will be filled by a presidential nomination with Senate confirmation.
FILE - In this April 21, 2009 file photo, Librarian of Congress James Billington is seen in Paris. Billington, the librarian of Congress who led the world's largest library for three decades, has retired. The post will be filled by a presidential nomination with Senate confirmation. AP

The librarian of Congress, a lifetime appointment since the library was founded in 1800, is about to be limited to 10 years.

The change is a radical departure for the nation’s oldest cultural institution and reflects Congress’ concern with the direction of the Library of Congress.

Lawmakers who oversee the Library of Congress quietly moved legislation this month, without any debate or objections, through the Senate and House and a bill, the Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015, is expected to be signed by the president next week.

UPDATE: President Obama signed the bill Nov. 5.

There have only been 13 librarians of Congress in U.S. history.

The new term limitation came just as long-time Librarian of Congress James Billington abruptly resigned Sept. 30th, three months earlier than expected. Under pressure to resign, he had announced in June that he would retire in January, giving President Obama time to name a successor. Deputy Librarian David Mao is the acting librarian until a new one is named.

In announcing his resignation in September, Billington said, “The enduring mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful for Congress and the American people, while sustaining and preserving a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.”

Billington, 86, a Russian scholar, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and had come under fire in reports by oversight agencies for poor management of information technology and delayed digitization of the library’s collections.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, sponsored the bill with panel member Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to limit the term to 10 years, although the person could be re-appointed to another term. The legislation comes as the president selects a new librarian, who is subject to Senate confirmation.

“The librarian retired as of Sept. 30, that has traditionally been seen as a lifetime appointment and in fact Mr. Billington was appointed by Mr. Reagan 28 years ago and served 28 years,” said Blunt in comments provided to McClatchy by his office.

Blunt said the bill passed earlier this month “after we worked senators and did what we needed to do to be sure that we could do this without objection that the next librarian of Congress appointed by this president, or by next president if this one doesn’t happen to get that done, would serve a 10 year term and so that would be a big change.”

“You might ask why that matters and that matters because the librarian of Congress has substantial say over how copyright law is enforced, has substantial say over how information is shared with people we all work for,” said Blunt. The Library of Congress also includes the Congressional Research Service, an in-house think tank, which serves the House and Senate.

The House approved the bill Oct. 20.

Blunt and scholars in the field believe the change is part of a “good government” policy.

Robert Darnton, Harvard University Librarian, Emeritus, and a professor at the Cambridge, Mass. university, said via email, “I never understood why--apart from tradition--the librarian of Congress should have an unlimited term similar to that of a Supreme Court justice. A renewable, 10-year term strikes me as a good idea, in itself and without any relation to James Billington.”

Blunt said that he had been in touch with the White House over the term limitation bill and he anticipated that the president would sign it.

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