President Obama Nominates New Librarian Of Congress Who Supports Open Access, Fights Against Surveillance

from the this-looks-good dept

So here's a pleasant surprise. President Obama has nominated Carla Hayden as the new Librarian of Congress, and at a first glance, she looks perfect for the job. The job is super important for a whole variety of reasons, including that the Librarian of Congress controls the Copyright Office (more on that in a bit...). The former Librarian of Congress, James Billington, was really bad. He apparently was mostly focused on hobnobbing with rich people in fancy places around the globe than doing anything useful. A report by the Government Accountability Office found a massive leadership vacuum with Billington when it came to technology issues, noting that he basically ignored technology entirely. When Billington announced he was retiring, the Washington Post reported that employees were absolutely elated:
The reaction inside the library was almost gleeful, as one employee joked that some workers were thinking of organizing a conga line down Pennsylvania Avenue. Another said it felt like someone opened a window.

“There is a general sense of relief, hope and renewal, all rolled into one feeling,” said one staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Like a great weight has been lifted from our shoulders.”

Maureen Moore, who retired in 2005 but volunteers at the library, said she and her friends were thrilled.

“It’s a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn’t,” she said.
That line is great: The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn't. But, right after that, that same Maureen Moore noted what many people feared: what if the replacement was worse and didn't actually understand the key issues of the day: "But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn’t a librarian, someone who doesn’t have management experience or another megalomaniac."

There had been a lot of speculation about who might be nominated, but it seemed tough to find people with the right qualifications. Someone who actually was a librarian, who had real management experience with a large organization and someone who actually understood the issues.

And at a first glance, Hayden seems perfect. For a while now, she's been CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Balitmore, and by all accounts has done an amazing job modernizing that system. It's also good to see that the President's announcement directly calls out her support of open access to information:
Her understanding of the pivotal role that emerging technologies play in libraries will be essential in leading the Library of Congress as it continues to modernize its infrastructure and promote open access and full participation in today's digital world.
The video that comes with the announcement also focuses quite a bit on free and open access to information and the role of the Library of Congress in encouraging that:

Today, I'm nominating Dr. Carla Hayden to be our 14th Librarian of Congress. Michelle and I have known Carla since her days working at the Chicago Public Library, and her dedication to learning and education is unparalleled. More recently, she's been hard at work revitalizing Baltimore’s struggling library system as the CEO of Enoch Pratt Free Library. Last year, during the unrest in Baltimore, Dr. Hayden kept the doors of the Pratt open as a beacon for the community. Her understanding of the pivotal role that emerging technologies play in libraries will be essential in leading the Library of Congress as it continues to modernize its infrastructure and promote open access and full participation in today's digital world. Finally, Dr. Hayden will be the first woman and the first African-American to hold this position in its 214 year history – both of which are long overdue.I hope you'll take a couple minutes to watch this video and meet Carla for yourself. I have no doubt she'll make a fantastic Librarian of Congress.

Posted by President Obama on Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Beyond that, Hayden was one of the leading voices speaking out against surveillance. As President of the American Library Association at the time when the PATRIOT Act was being debated, she was vocal in opposition, especially to Section 215, which was used to create the phone metadata program that Ed Snowden revealed. What many people forget is that it was the librarians who were most vocal about Section 215 when it was first proposed, as many people thought it would be used to demand things like library records to see what was being checked out -- and librarians are big supporters of privacy.

She's also spoken out for years about the value of free access to information. Here's a 2003 profile of Hayden in Ms. Magazine (where she was named Woman of the Year) in which she notes:
“Libraries are a cornerstone of democracy—where information is free and equally available to everyone. People tend to take that for granted,” says Hayden. “And they don’t realize what is at stake when that is put at risk.”
From that same profile:
Hayden’s stance against the PATRIOT Act is part and parcel of her vision of the library as an integral element of democracy. “We serve the underserved,” Hayden says. “When libraries fight against the PATRIOT Act, or against [mandatory Internet filters], we’re fighting for the public. Most of the people who use public libraries don’t have the opportunity to buy books at a bookstore or on What the library does is protect the rights of all people to fully and freely access information and to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.”
Of course, the best recommendation may be the fear already coming out of the RIAA, who put out a fairly ridiculous statement in response:
“It is worth noting that the Library of Congress and the U.S. Copyright Office have been mutually respectful of each other’s areas of expertise. We would hope that the new Librarian would continue to demonstrate that respect for the Copyright Office’s expertise in copyright policy and recommendations to Congress.”
In other words "don't mess with the Copyright Office." Of course, what this really is about is the current and ongoing fight over what to do to "modernize" the Copyright Office. There's a big push from the MPAA and the RIAA to move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and either merge it into the US Patent and Trademark Office, or make it a stand alone agency. That's all part of the decades-long whitewashing of the history of copyright, to pretend that it's not about benefiting the public with more access to information, but rather about protecting a particular industry. That fight will only take on more prominence as a result of this nomination.

Of course, there's also the question of whether or not the Senate will approve the nomination. Obviously, there are different stakes involved, but everyone lately has been talking about whether or not the Senate will even hold hearings on President Obama's expected Supreme Court nomination. And the (totally bullshit) argument against it is "well, this is an election year, and we should let the public decide who the President will be, and then let that President choose a nominee." That's silly for a whole bunch of reasons, and without the SCOTUS backdrop no one would think twice about considering the LOC nominee. However, given all the statements being made, I could see some in the Senate argue that they can't consider any nominees for anything, just to appear to remain consistent.

And, of course, some are actually wondering if her vocal opposition to the PATRIOT Act will somehow get in the way of her appointment. I guess that's possible, but if so, it would be crazy, because she was absolutely right, and Congress itself has now updated Section 215 after Ed Snowden revealed how it was being abused.

Either way, this appears to be a fantastic nomination and I hope it does go smoothly, and that it leads to not just a modernized Library of Congress, but a modernized Copyright Office as well --and by that I mean one that doesn't just focus on doing the bidding of a few legacy industry players, but actually on serving the public interest.

Filed Under: carla hayden, copyright, copyright office, librarian of congress, librarians, open access, patriot act, privacy, public benefit, section 215, surveillance

Reader Comments

The First Word

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  1. icon
    Mike Masnick (profile), 24 Feb 2016 @ 2:44pm


    Yes, it's a stupid argument, and extending it to the Library of Congress is even stupider (not that anyone has, thus far). But when Biden was the Senate judiciary committee chairman in 1992, he said, "If someone steps down, I would highly recommend the President not name someone, not send a name up". Obama wasn't even a state senator yet at that point, but I don't have a hard time believing that he would have taken the same attitude.

    Sure. I have no doubt that if the parties were reversed, the other side would be making the same stupid argument. It's clearly a stupid political argument and it's a stupid political argument no matter which party is making it, so not even sure why you felt the need to bring up the parties. I didn't.

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