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Congress Ponders Changes to Library of Congress Under New Leader

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Library of Congress will have a new leader for the first time in nearly three decades, creating an opening for Congress to make some changes at the 200-year-old institution.  

Lawmakers aren't wasting any time. The day before James H. Billington retired as 13th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 30, after leading the library since 1987, the Senate put into motion a bill to limit the years of service for the next librarian .  

The library's collection nearly doubled during his tenure, and while the institution added a digital library, it has also been the subject of criticism regarding its information technology management .  

Each of the five senators who are part of the Joint Committee on the Library signed on to a bill introduced on Sept. 29 that would change the librarian post from a lifetime appointment to a 10-year appointment with the possibility for reappointment. A number of the lawmakers involved said this was not a reflection on the 86-year-old Billington's service; rather, they said it was simply time for a change.  

“Well, nothing against Dr. Billington, who has been the father of so many different ideas. He’s done a spectacular job," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., a member of the library oversight committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.  

"We just feel that a 10-year period would be appropriate," Roberts added. "Everything else around here at least has some limit. But I think 10 years is enough for a person to have an imprint on the Library of Congress with where they want to go."  

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of both the Rules Committee and Joint Committee on the Library, introduced the bill along with Rules ranking member Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. Blunt indicated President Barack Obama's administration would be receptive to the change.  

"I have reason to believe that the White House will sign that bill if they get it," Blunt said in a Sept. 30 statement, "and then will nominate a Librarian of Congress for a 10-year term as opposed to someone who everybody assumes will serve for life."  

The White House declined to comment. Obama is tasked with appointing Billington's successor, who must be confirmed by the Senate. It is not clear when the White House will nominate a successor, but one potential nominee, Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, reportedly turned the job down.  

The eventual nominee will likely face questions about how to improve the library's transition into the digital era. The Government Accountability Office released a scathing report in April alleging IT mismanagement, though the new chief information officer is hoping to solve some of those issues. Lawmakers with oversight of the library's functions and budget will be keeping a close eye on those developments as the library transitions to new leadership.  

“As we look towards the next librarian of Congress, I will continue to support important reforms, including increasing global access to the Library, building the Library’s digital content, and ensuring it remains a place for researchers, readers, and families," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the library's nearly $600 million budget, said in a statement.  

"Importantly," she added, "I’ll also be focusing on ensuring the nation’s copyright system continues to improve and better serve American artists and innovators.”  

She pointed to another issue members of Congress will be looking at during the transition: the fate of the U.S. Copyright Office. The Copyright Office currently operates within the Library of Congress, and its place there has come into question as Congress re-examines the nation's copyright laws.  

In a March letter to House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., Maria Pallante, the director of the Copyright Office, argued the office should no longer be part of the Library of Congress, citing "mounting operational tensions" and a number of other concerns.  

"We believe that these interests would be served best by establishing an independent copyright agency to administer the law, and by designating a leader that is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate," Pallante wrote.  

Lawmakers with jurisdiction over the library have cited the Copyright Office as an area of concern. But the likelihood that Congress would try to make any changes to the office, or the library as a whole, through the appropriations process appears unlikely, according to both chambers' subcommittee chairmen.  

At the least, House and Senate appropriators will be tasked with reconciling their respective bills dictating the Library of Congress' budget over the coming months, as Congress works toward a budget deal with a Dec. 11 deadline.  

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.