The American Historian

Politics and the Library of Congress

Nancy F. Cott

Do you think of the Library of Congress as simply the largest library in the United States, where you should be able to find whatever printed item you’re looking for? Probably. It is the largest library in the world, with almost 160 million items in 460 languages, though it is not (or no longer, if it once was) the ‘library of record,’ including every item copyrighted in the United States. The Library of Congress is an immense resource of world knowledge—and also a political institution. The 1800 legislation establishing the library said it was to collect and house “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress.” And Congress does use it, all the time. The library’s Congressional Research Service responded to nearly 600,000 requests for analysis and information from members of Congress in fiscal year 2015, and created summaries of more than 8,200 versions of proposed bills.

But as I write this in late June 2016, the news about the Library of Congress is unusually politicized, reflecting our heatedly partisan times. One reason is the pending appointment of a new Librarian of Congress. All the previous Librarians of Congress have been white men, and there have been only thirteen of them, because the office has carried indefinite tenure that has typically lasted a lifetime. James H. Billington, who served as Librarian since 1987, retired in January 2016, and in February President Barack Obama nominated Carla D. Hayden for the post. She is an African American woman, a highly accomplished librarian whose career began in Chicago; since 1993 she has been CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, Maryland, and has received kudos for her success in outreach services to young people. President Obama has been familiar with her for some time: in 2010 he appointed her to the National Museum and Library Services Board, an advisory body for the federal Institute for Museum and Library Services. The Senate confirmed her as a member of that board then, but it has not yet acted on her confirmation, though she had a Senate hearing in late April.

The president’s announcement about his nominee stressed not only her commitment to promoting “open access and full participation” but also “her understanding of the pivotal role that emerging technologies play in libraries . . . in today’s digital world.” That was presumably a subtle reference to the longstanding criticism of Librarian Billington for failing in the arena of information technology. The General Accounting Office undertook a detailed review of the library from 2014 through 2015 and made the heading of its March 2015 report to Congress “Strong Leadership Needed to Address Serious Information Technology Management Weaknesses.”

Billington was a noted scholar of Russian history, a one-time Rhodes scholar, a Harvard and Princeton assistant professor for short times, and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars before his appointment as Librarian of Congress and had begun several valuable initiatives at the Library of Congress and proved a powerful fund-raiser in the first fifteen to twenty years of his tenure. Heading the Library of Congress requires multifaceted abilities. Besides being a knowledge repository, it is an enormous management responsibility: its employees number more than three thousand and its annual budget tops $600 million. It includes the U.S. Copyright Office—a complex operation in its own right. In recent years Billington’s senior managers became highly critical of his leadership and he was publicly criticized for holding back rather than advancing the frontiers of digital information. (Case in point: he doesn’t use email.)

Those in the library world welcomed Carla Hayden’s nomination. “The President could not have made a better choice,” said Sari Feldman, the president of the American Library Association (ALA), the professional organization in the field, invoking “librarians’ bedrock principle that all Americans everywhere deserve and must have equitable access to the information that they need to succeed and lead productive lives in the digital age.” But conservative pundits focused on President Obama’s assertion that it was high time for a woman and African American to hold the post and called the nomination merely ‘politically correct.’ “There really is nothing that the Obama administration will not saddle with the yoke of identity politics,” wrote the editors of the National Review in response to the nomination (April 27, 2016). Granting Hayden’s qualifications as a librarian, the editors protested that the Librarian of Congress was supposed to be the ‘scholar-in chief’ of the nation. They pointed to Billington’s scholarly bona fides and to previous appointees Daniel Boorstin (an eminent U.S. historian) and Archibald Macleish, not an academic scholar but still a well-known man of letters. The Weekly Standard’s online magazine The Scrapbook made the same point and accused the president of having “a philistine streak” (April 11, 2016).

Since the Library of Congress website posts a descriptive list of those who previously held the post of Librarian, these conservative writers could have discovered that Boorstin and Macleish were more the exception than the rule in the twentieth century and that the American Library Association protested both of these appointments because of the men’s lack of expertise on libraries! Herbert Putnam, who served from 1899 to 1939, had previously headed the Minneapolis Athenaeum, the Minneapolis Public Library, and the Boston Public Library; he “linked the Library’s policies firmly with the broader interests of American librarianship” when he was Librarian of Congress, the website notes. Lawrence Mumford, who served from 1954 to 1974, was a librarian by training and occupation. Luther Evans, who served from 1945 to 1953 after Macleish, had a Ph.D., but taught only briefly before taking a political appointment from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to develop historical records; he was the successful head of the Works Progress Administration before becoming Librarian of Congress.

Thus Carla Hayden, if confirmed, will follow in a long though interrupted history of actual librarians serving successfully as Librarians of Congress. One wonders whether another striking feature of her career figures in the conservative opposition to her nomination. As president of the American Library Association from 2003 to 2004, she led librarians’ protest against and refusal to comply with the U.S. Patriot Act insofar as it required them to release patrons’ library records to the FBI. Section 215 of the Patriot Act allowed the FBI to override state privacy laws and order third parties (such as libraries) to produce records, documents, and the like for a qualified terrorism investigation. The FBI could find out what a suspect was checking out, in other words. The section is now even more infamous because it enabled collection of mass phone data, but in 2003, it was librarians who protested forcefully, recalling McCarthy-era probes and guilt by association. Carla Hayden then emphasized that libraries—”a cornerstone of democracy”—must protect everyone’s right “to pursue knowledge, without fear of repercussion.” These remarks were quoted by Ms. magazine in the winter of 2003 in anointing Hayden a “Woman of the Year” for her brave leadership.

The Library of Congress’s creation of authoritative subject headings for library cataloguing also became politicized in the spring of 2016. Every library in the United States has to follow the naming of subjects by the Library of Congress. For example, if it uses the word “cookery” for items about cooking (as it did until 2010), your library too must use that antiquated term; you cannot substitute the word “cooking.” In January 2016 at its midwinter meeting the American Library Association passed a resolution calling on the Library of Congress to replace its subject heading “Illegal aliens” with “undocumented immigrants.”

The issue had percolated up to the ALA from the distress of a Dartmouth student, Melissa Padilla, discovering in 2014 that her college library used the heading ‘Illegal aliens.’ The noun “alien” these days brings to mind a creature from outer space, not simply a foreign national (the word’s meaning when it became standard in federal law); and Padilla, herself from a family that entered the U.S. without legal papers, regarded “illegal alien” as a racist term. She mobilized a college protest, which moved the Dartmouth librarians to take the issue to the ALA.

Officials at the Library of Congress responded favorably, announcing in late March that it would change the subject headings to “noncitizens” (instead of “aliens”) and “unauthorized immigration.” But certain Republicans in Congress were outraged. Representative Diane Black of Tennessee, with the support of twenty male colleagues, introduced a bill “to direct the Librarian of Congress to retain the headings ‘Aliens’ and “Illegal aliens” in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.” It was called the “Stopping Partisan Policy at the Library of Congress Act.” In May, Senators Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions and two Texas Republican congressmen sent a letter accusing the library of bowing to political pressure. More important, the language of Black’s bill was inserted into the pending appropriations bill for the legislative branch (including the Library of Congress). The most outspoken opponent of Black’s bill’s intent has been Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas (sometimes mentioned as a possible vice-presidential running-mate for Hillary Clinton) who himself is trying to remove the word ‘alien’ and ‘illegal immigrant’ from federal code. He has pointed out that Congress has never before interfered with the library’s designations of subject headings. Though they may seem to move slowly, the subject headings are under assessment and revision all the time, and changes in them are not rare: Rep. Castro claimed that 4,934 changes were made in 2015, according to the Texas Tribune (June 9, 2016). For instance, Bombay (India) is now Mumbai (India).

Ms. Hayden’s appointment and the controversial subject headings are undecided as I write. If she is confirmed by the time you read this, the Library of Congress will enter a new era. Its politicization is likely to linger nonetheless.


Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University.  Her writings range widely over questions concerning women, gender, marriage, feminism, and citizenship in the United States, and include The Bonds of Womanhood: 'Woman's Sphere' in New England, 1780-1835 (1977); The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987); and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000).  Her interests also include the history of social movements, political culture, and law. Her current project concerns Americans who came of age in the 1920s and shaped their lives internationally.