Librarians of Congress

Untitled Document

The Librarians of Congress: Past and Future
By Suzanne E. Thorin and Robert Wedgeworth

Librarians of Congress have been poets, playwrights, journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, historians, and indeed, librarians. They have frequently functioned as cultural ambassadors to the world, and in a sense, as the de facto U.S. Secretary of Culture.

Backgrounds, experience, press releases, official pronouncements, and pontifications aside, the Librarian of Congress’s job is complex and difficult. The library he (all 13 Librarians have been men) administers is quite literally the library of the Congress, and its members are proud of having it within their purview. Congress reviews the library’s work and its leadership’s performance and has oversight for its budget, policies, and procedures. The Library of Congress is also a federal agency, one that is located in the legislative branch along with the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Printing Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the Architect of the Capitol.

Yet, the Library of Congress is also unofficially this country’s national library, and among national libraries, it is by far the largest. The “library” part of LC includes numerous public reading rooms where patrons use the collections and the services of the reference staff. The library is comprehensive in its acquisition of collections through the U.S. copyright deposit program and through gifts, exchanges, and purchases abroad.

Even while the Library of Congress is a mega-library, it is much more than a library. The Library of the Congress houses other separate or nearly separate organizations, including the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the U.S. Copyright Office, the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, the Law Library of Congress, and the Federal Research Division. The Library of Congress is, in a sense, a corporation with a number of subsidiaries, one that has an internal board of directors in the form of the Joint Committee on the Library and the Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee. In realty, however, each of the 535 members of Congress has a stake in the Library. Even though the Library may not be on the minds of members daily, given their other pressing responsibilities, they share a pride of ownership. The Librarian of Congress reports to the Congress as the head of an agency in the legislative branch.

Subject to the advice and consent of the Senate, the president of the United States appoints the Librarian of Congress. The appointment has no term limit, although Librarians have been replaced or have retired when new presidents assumed office. Tenures of previous Librarians have run the gamut from three years (John Gould Stephenson) to 40 (Herbert Putnam). John Meehan and Ainsworth Spofford served 32 years and 33 years respectively, but eight Librarians served terms of less than 15 years (John Beckley, Patrick Magruder, George Watterston, John Stephenson, John Russell Young, Archibald MacLeish, Luther Evans, and Daniel Boorstin). James Billington, the present Librarian of Congress, will match Quincy Mumford’s 20-year tenure in September 2007. Two Librarians died in office (Beckley and Young), four retired from the position (Spofford, Putnam, Mumford, and Boorstin), and six resigned for other reasons (Magruder, Watterston, Meehan, Stephenson, MacLeish, and Evans).

It is not in their length of service, however, but in their remarkable contributions, unrealized goals, and unintended legacies that the changes in role of the Librarian of Congress and the library itself are revealed. It is illuminating to look back at other Librarians of Congress to discover why they were appointed—as well as at the Library itself as it grew from Jefferson’s collection into the largest library in the world.

1802–1864: Pure Political Appointees

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, appointed the first two Librarians of Congress, who also had the title of Clerk of the House of Representatives. John Beckley, the first Librarian of Congress, had been Jefferson’s campaign manager, and Patrick Magruder, also a Jefferson supporter, had been a member of Congress. James Madison, the 4th president and a Whig, appointed George Watterston, who served 14 years through the tenure of three presidents (Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams). Watterston, however, became passionate in his opposition to the 7th president, Andrew Jackson, who reacted by replacing Watterston with John Meehan, a fellow Democrat. Amazingly, Meehan served the nine next presidents, four of whom were Democrats and four Whigs.

The last president Meehan served, James Buchanan, was a Republican as was Abraham Lincoln, who would become the 16th president. Even with this political commonality, Lincoln replaced Meehan with John Gould Stephenson, a Republican physician, who was active in politics in Terre Haute, Indiana. Stephenson served as an officer in the Civil War during his tenure as Librarian of Congress and resigned after three years. Early on, Stephenson had appointed Ainsworth Spofford as chief assistant librarian, and Spofford succeeded Stephenson, as one of only two Librarians to be appointed from within the Library of Congress. (Luther Evans is the other Librarian appointed from within the LC staff.)

In effect, during the first 62 years that the position of Librarian of Congress existed (1802–1864), the five Librarians (who served 16 presidents) were purely political appointees; they were not even what were then called bookmen and certainly not librarians. Another chapter began to unfold when Spofford campaigned successfully in 1864 to become the 6th Librarian of Congress.

1864–1987: Mixed Backgrounds and Experience

During this 151-year period, a variety of Librarians of Congress were appointed, including a bookseller, journalist, and a lawyer who had experience administering two sizable libraries; a poet and playwright; a government worker; a historian; and an actual certified librarian with administrative experience in libraries. Ainsworth Rand Spofford, a book dealer and journalist from Cincinnati, worked for Librarian of Congress John Gould Stephenson and gained significant responsibilities while Stephenson served in the Civil War. Spofford, who was 39 years old, decided that he wanted to be the Librarian of Congress and mounted a successful campaign to get President Lincoln to appoint him. Spofford not only served for 33 years (the second-longest tenure in the position) but when he stepped down in 1897, it was to the position of chief assistant librarian, which he held until his death at 83. Spofford expanded LC’s collections in various ways, including moving library materials from the Smithsonian Institution to LC and getting legislation approved making the Library of Congress the nation’s sole copyright registering center and depository for copyrighted materials. During Spofford’s tenure, the original library building, now called the Jefferson Building, was constructed.

Herbert Putnam

The next Librarian of Congress, John Russell Young, who had political connections with Ulysses Grant and others, was appointed by President McKinley and served but two years until he died. After Young’s death, McKinley appointed Herbert Putnam, whose 40-year tenure was the longest of any Librarian of Congress to date. Son of the publishing scion George Palmer Putnam, Herbert Putnam was 38 years old when he took office in 1899, the year after serving the first of two terms as president of ALA; in 1904 he served a second term as ALA president while Librarian of Congress. Educated at Harvard, he was the first experienced librarian to head LC, having been the director of the Minnesota Public Library and the Boston Public Library. In fact, many of Putnam’s librarian contemporaries had hoped that his appointment was recognition that having library experience was an important component of a Librarian of Congress’s qualifications; however, only one of the five Librarians of Congress who have succeeded him has had a background working in libraries.

Among other achievements, Putnam established the Library of Congress classification system, created the National Union Catalog, and began to lend LC’s collections to other libraries for use by the public. Putnam was popular with his staff and librarians across the country during the first part of his tenure, but as his LC service lengthened without him giving word of when he would retire, the internal operations of the library stagnated. Supposedly, even President Franklin D. Roosevelt wondered when he would leave. In 1939, Putnam retired at the age of 78.

Archibald MacLeish

In terms of overall achievements, Archibald MacLeish, who served the library during World War II, stands out as perhaps the most extraordinarily successful Librarian of Congress. Appointed by President Roosevelt, he was a poet and playwright who won three Pulitzer prizes and was a wartime advisor to the president. MacLeish actually spent only six years as Librarian of Congress, and for the better part of his LC tenure, held concurrent positions in the government. MacLeish’s appointment was opposed vigorously (and some would say inappropriately) by the American Library Association, which had sponsored its own candidate (ALA Bulletin, July 1939, p. 467, 522). MacLeish, who received a standing ovation from participants at the ALA conference just a year later, proved to be highly popular with Library staff and librarians across the country. He assembled an effective senior management group, reinvigorated a disheartened staff through reorganization, codified the objectives of LC, provided ways for staff to give input, and convened distinguished university librarians to advise him. When MacLeish resigned in 1944, President Roosevelt appointed him Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs.

Luther Evans

MacLeish, like John Stephenson, unknowingly recruited his successor, Luther Evans, as the head of what was then called the Legislative Reference Service (now the Congressional Research Service) and had promoted him to the position of Chief Assistant Librarian. Appointed as Librarian of Congress by President Harry Truman in 1945, Evans held a doctorate in political science from Stanford University. He had been the director of the Historical Records Survey, a program in the Works Progress Administration. Well respected by LC staff, his eight-year tenure has been described as “an extension of the MacLeish years” in the Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress. He sought standing for the Library internationally and was responsible for obtaining extensive European publications from the war period for LC’s collections. Evans’s personal style apparently was blunt, and he held strong opinions, but he mingled with staff and sought their opinions as well. He believed strongly in an open democracy and opposed the politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy; nonetheless, Evans created a Loyalty Review Board, which operated at the Library of Congress from 1947 to 1953. Evans resigned in 1953 to become the 3rd director-general of UNESCO.

Quincy Mumford

President Dwight Eisenhower selected Lawrence Quincy Mumford in 1954. The only Librarian of Congress to hold a degree in librarianship (B.S. in library science from Columbia University), he had been director of the Cleveland Public Library. Members of Congress had not been satisfied with Evans’s tenure for a number of reasons, including what they saw as an inappropriate expansion of LC’s role nationally and internationally. Mumford refused to give ground regarding the need for the Library’s national role and maintained that the Library of Congress had the dual role of serving the Congress and the nation as a whole.

During Mumford’s tenure the issue of moving the Library to the Executive Branch surfaced through a report that Senator Claiborne Pell had requested from a Harvard University library official. (After Luther Evans left LC, he also recommended in a Brookings Institution survey moving the Library to the Executive Branch, where he believed it would receive stronger support.) Mumford vigorously defended the Library remaining a part of the Legislative Branch, and a pleased Congress subsequently approved appropriations for a third LC building and a significant increase in acquisitions funding. The growth of the Library under Mumford was unprecedented, with the annual budget increasing from $9.4 million to $96.7 million during his tenure.

On the negative side, when the Congressional Research Service was given more independence under Mumford, a cultural split occurred between the Library proper and CRS, one that many would agree exists even today. The cultural split actually began during Luther Evans’s tenure when the Legislative Reference Service, as it was then called, was made a special unit. Daniel Boorstin, the 12th Librarian of Congress, supposedly said that having the Congressional Research Service within LC was a bit like having a piranha in the pond: Every other unit needed to quicken its pace.

Allegations of racial discrimination began to surface and would affect the tenures of the next two Librarians as the complaints ultimately grew into a class-action discrimination suit that, during James Billington’s tenure, was settled with one of the largest awards ever given for such a suit in the federal government (American Libraries, Oct. 1992, p. 728–729). (It is worth remembering that Barbara Ringer, who eventually became a distinguished Register of Copyrights and the first woman to be Register, was appointed after filing a suit alleging discrimination because of sex when she was an applicant for the position and was not appointed. The District Court ruled in her favor and she served as Register from 1973 to 1980 and Interim Register from 1993 to 1994) (American Libraries, Nov. 1973, p. 590). Mumford, who served in a period of great national growth, left the Library in 1974 at age 71.

Daniel Boorstin

President Gerald Ford appointed Daniel Boorstin, a historian who was educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale, to be the 12th Librarian of Congress in 1975. ALA did not endorse Boorstin’s appointment because he lacked the background and experience of a librarian, and used its testimony to put on the record what it thought about the leadership and direction of LC (American Libraries, Nov. 1975, p. 582). The Senate approved the appointment without debate—stipulating however, that Boorstin, who was a prolific author and Pulitzer Prize winner, could not write books during his workday at the Library of Congress.

A populist, Boorstin invited the public to use the Library of Congress’s reading rooms by literally opening the bronze front doors that lead into the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building. He made the Library a center for intellectual activity in Washington by hosting public events and by creating a national Council of Scholars and the Center for the Book, which has since grown into a network of state organizations dedicated to books and reading. He reorganized the Library to strengthen interactions among various constituencies, and he obtained significant federal funding to renovate both the Jefferson and Adams buildings. During Boorstin’s tenure, some allege that the racial climate at the Library worsened; in 1987, as his tenure came to an end, the class action was certified.

James Billlington, the current incumbent, has a distinguished record as Librarian of Congress. First educated in the Philadelphia public schools, he graduated from Princeton University, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, served in the U.S. Army, taught both at Harvard and Princeton, and was the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. before being appointed Librarian of Congress by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Billington’s legacy promises to be an exceptional one, and his achievements have come about during massive changes in the national culture catalyzed by technological innovations, particularly the development of the Web.

Early in his tenure, Billington made LC’s electronic catalog available to the public and, with direction from then–Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, created Thomas, a publicly available database that records the work of the Congress. Billington envisaged sharing the library’s massive special collections with the public, and through the American Memory project, more than 11 million maps, musical scores, films, manuscripts, and images are now freely available on the Web. His ability to coax funds from the Congress is legendary: In 2000, he persuaded lawmakers to appropriate almost $100 million to develop the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program for born-digital objects—resources created digitally.

In addition, through the Madison Council, a private fundraising group he created, Billington secured $60 million from John Kluge to create the Kluge Center for Scholars, and from David Packard to build a conservation and access facility for recorded sound and film in Culpeper, Virginia, worth $155 million. Billington’s achievements are consistent with those of many of his distinguished predecessors: He has built his legacy on the inherited challenges he has addressed and the opportunities he has exploited.

The Next Librarian of Congress

When the 44th president of the United States assumes office in January 2009, Billington will be but five months away from his 80th birthday. If he is still serving, he will be the oldest person to hold that office since it was created in 1802. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that due to retirement, politics, or both, it will soon be time for interested communities to think about leadership requirements for the next Librarian of Congress.

In our time, the technology environment has evolved rapidly, and libraries around the world have been among the leading public institutions to transform themselves to meet new demands. The Library of Congress is no exception. Its future leaders will continue to grapple with the demands of collecting, preserving, and making accessible precious analog and digital materials, some of which may be available nowhere else in the world.

But the next Librarian of Congress also will face issues that are difficult to identify today and that will demand energetic leadership both in new and traditional communities, as well as a keen ability to manage the internal affairs of a large and complicated organization. To offer this leadership position with no term limit and without a determination of the leadership characteristics that best match the needs of the institution could deprive LC of the leadership capabilities it will require during the next decade. (By means of comparison, the head of the National Archives and Records Administration is appointed by the president with advice and consent of the Senate, as is the Librarian of Congress. However, the head of NARA may be removed at any time by the president, who is only required to communicate the reason to the Senate and the House. There is currently no specified procedure for removing the Librarian of Congress.)

Term limit

If there were to be a term limit for the position, as some have suggested, the Librarian’s appointment would move closer to the national political process and could become—as it was from 1802 to 1864—a reward from a new president to a political supporter. Others believe that a limited term might bring capable library professionals into the top leadership position, as has happened in other national libraries, e.g., the British Library. Short of creating a term limit, Congress, through the Joint Committee on the Library, could create an internal review process for the Librarian of Congress that could be invoked at the end of an appointment term not to exceed 10 years, normally. A new term could follow a favorable review.

The argument that Evans and others have made to move LC to the Executive Branch supports a limited term for the Librarian of Congress as well as a push toward professional leadership. However, there are few advocates for a change in the location of the Library. Such a move could also force LC to leave behind the Congressional Research Service, with CRS reporting directly to Congress instead of sitting somewhat uncomfortably within the Executive Branch. Some have also suggested that any change in LC’s structure might result in other Library units, specifically the U.S. Copyright Office, merging with the U.S. Patent Office.

It is critical, however, for the House Administration Committee and the Senate Rules Committee to review the current Librarian of Congress’s compensation, which presently is $165,200 under Executive Schedule II before its members seek candidates for the 14th Librarian of Congress. According to 2005 statistics from the Association for Research Libraries, eight university librarians are presently paid annual salaries of more than $250,000. Chief information officers and university or foundation presidents, all potential candidates, are paid much higher salaries than are these eight university librarians. A better overall compensation package for the Librarian of Congress could be coupled with a “soft” term limit in order to attract a larger pool of qualified candidates who may not view the position as a terminal career move.

Leadership requirements

The next Librarian of Congress should be committed to leading a national library coordinated with a nationwide network of libraries and research institutions. Among the overall qualities of any candidate should be a belief that the Library of Congress is a visible symbol of democracy. Collections, information services, and cultural and educational programs that help to nurture and educate citizens serve a broad public good. Any viable candidate should also understand that service to Congress is of primary importance; she or he should be an advocate for adequate funding and internal library support for the Congressional Research Service and should commit to serving Congress from all parts of the library. Any serious candidate would need to interact well with Congress, the administration and its relevant agencies, the library and scholarly communities, publishers and other information providers, and especially the LC staff—manifesting an abiding and real commitment to diversity. These are all basic requirements for serving Congress and the nation.

In addition, the candidate should also have a record of proven talent for creatively managing a large and diverse organization and commit to seeking ways to gather advice regularly and consistently from constituents nationwide who use or want to use the organization’s collections and services. The candidate should also be committed to constructing an effective senior management team that would help to realize the goals of the institution and of Congress. One of the many strengths of LC is that it is normally unaffected by changes of political party or of key individuals in the executive or legislative branches. But precisely because LC is not a government entity from which citizens can “throw the bums out,” the Librarian has a special responsibility to hear and respond faithfully to the voices of the staff; to those who use the library’s collections and services as students, scholars, or members of Congress; and to those who are experts in fields that need the Library of Congress or whom the Library of Congress needs, including librarians, technologists, and scholars. Creating an outside board of advisors to address this complex set of constituent communities, such as have the National Library of Medicine and the British Library, could foster better communication nationally and bring new ideas into the library.

Advocate for the public

Above and beyond these qualities, the next Librarian of Congress will need to exercise strong leadership to convince Congress that discovery, learning, and scholarship in our country are dependent on balancing the rights of copyright holders with fair use.

The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power ”to promote the Progress of Science and useful arts by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The first copyright term in 1790 was limited to 14 years. Through the years, the term increased and by 1976 copyright had been extended to the life of the author plus 50 years (75 years for corporate authorship). In 1998, the Copyright Term Extension Act (also called the Sonny Bono Act) extended copyright to the life of the author plus 70 years (95 years for corporate authorship). The act also affected works published prior to January 1, 1978, by increasing their term by 20 years. While the appropriate balance between fair use and the rights of creators can and should be debated, it is difficult not to see that the balance has tilted strongly toward copyright holders in recent years.

Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Final Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences (December 2006), documents the urgent need to build a strong cyberinfrastructure to support digital scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The report lists the current copyright laws as a major barrier both to digital scholarship and to preserving the country’s heritage. The prospect of creating a “unified cultural record online” is presently blocked by excessive terms of copyright and by renewals that are automatically extended. Current copyright laws keep most 20th-century works from becoming available in digital form, so the creative output of our country’s artists and scholars cannot be studied online. Humanists, often described as loners in their research, are becoming increasingly collaborative, and large-scale work is being accomplished digitally with new paths of research emerging that were impossible in an analog world. Excessive privatization of digital objects of all kinds impedes research and discovery by children in kindergarten, adults with learning goals, and students and faculty of all molds.

The Library of Congress has been a significant national contributor of digitized analog content on the Web and a leader in researching how to preserve born-digital materials. The next Librarian of Congress should seek to build relationships nationally and internationally with individuals and institutions to ensure that redundant archives of digital content of all types exist to safeguard the history of our country. But, even more importantly, the 14th Librarian of Congress should assume leadership on the public’s behalf to advocate strongly for fair use. Many organizations and individuals are working diligently on a variety of copyright issues and legislation, but there is presently an absence of a national voice to represent the public’s right to find and use all kinds of knowledge materials in all formats without barriers. As LC’s chief executive officer, the Librarian of Congress is charged with holding the U.S. Copyright Office accountable for balance in its work. But as the visible symbol of libraries and learning in the United States, the Librarian of Congress should also be the nation’s voice for advocating fair use. That voice needs to be heard in every state and through every medium—but especially in congressional offices and congressional hearings on copyright.

Ainsworth Spofford’s strategy was brilliant in making the Library of Congress the sole depository for copyrighted works, because its collections are now preeminent in the world. The next Librarian of Congress must ensure that these magnificent collections, as well as the extensive resources of all the nation’s libraries, are available digitally to the American public for their educational and cultural edification instead of being “protected” for increasingly lengthy copyright terms that favor copyright holders, including corporations, over the American public’s need to use digital resources for educational, research, and cultural purposes.

Librarians of Congress
Name President Who Appointed Years of Service Tenure in Years Age Entered Age Left Age Died Reason Left



Reasons left:
a: died.
b: replaced with another political appointee.
c:took the position of chief assistance librarian until his death.
d: retired.
e: took other government and academic positions.


SUZANNE THORIN was appointed university librarian and dean of libraries at Syracuse (N.Y.) University in 2005. She is a member of the Chancellor’s cabinet and is also responsible for the Syracuse University Press. Between 1996 and 2005, Suzanne was the Ruth Lilly University Dean of Libraries and associate vice president for digital libraries at Indiana University. Her previous experience includes 16 years at the Library of Congress, where she served in numerous capacities in public and collections services. During her last four years at LC, she was the chief of staff to the Librarian of Congress and the associate librarian for management services. She holds a bachelor’s degree in music education from North Park University in Chicago and master’s degrees in music history and literature and in library science from the University of Michigan. Thorin’s research includes documenting the history of digital library development in the United States and how the differences in ways that scholars work are influencing their use of technology. She coauthored with Daniel Greenstein The Digital Library: A Biography, and she was instrumental in planning the Association of Research Libraries conference “Scholarly Tribes and Tribulations: How Tradition and Technology are Driving Disciplinary Change”, which explored the differences in the disciplines and for which her paper, “Global Changes in Scholarly Communication”, was a major resource and was published in eLearning and Digital Publishing (Springer-Verlag, April 2006). Thorin is a member of the Association of Research Libraries’ board and a member of the Portico Advisory Committee.

ROBERT WEDGEWORTH is president and CEO of ProLiteracy Worldwide, an adult literacy organization based in Syracuse, New York. He retired from the University of Illinois as university librarian and professor of library administration in 1999. He served as ALA executive director in 1972–85, and from 1985 to 1992 he was dean of the School of Library Service at Columbia University. Wedgeworth was president of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in 1991–97.


Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress: For Congress, the Nation, and the World, edited by John Y. Cole and Jane Aiken. (Bernan Press, 2004). Thomison, Dennis. “F.D.R., the ALA, and Mr. MacLeish: The Selection of the Librarian of Congress, 1939,” Library Quarterly (October 1972, p. 390–398). Library of Congress website. Special thanks to John Cole, who has written extensively about the Library of Congress. The National Archives and Records Administration website. Rothstein, Samuel. “The Origins of Legislative Reference Services in the United States,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, (August 1990, p. 401–411). The White House website. World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services Third Edition. (American Library Association, 1993).