Update: President Obama signed this bill into law on November 5, after it was approved in the House of Representatives on October 20.
As President Obama ponders his choice for the next Librarian of Congress, the first time in nearly three decades that such a nomination will be necessary, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill to put a ten-year term on the position. If passed by the House and signed by the president, the bill will strip the job of the lifetime tenure it has carried since 1802.
The bipartisan “Librarian of Congress Succession Modernization Act of 2015,” co-sponsored by Senate Rules Administration Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) and ranking member Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), limits the automatic length of an initial appointment but does not represent a total term limit of the kind that holds the president to two four year terms: a given Librarian of Congress can continue to be reappointed every ten years if the president in office at the time chooses to do so. A clause explicitly stating that a librarian can be reappointed is the sole alteration from the bill’s original version.
The Senate, which must confirm all Librarian of Congress nominees, passed the bill unanimously on Oct. 7. The House of Representatives’ version of the bill has been referred to the House Administration Committee, and would have to be passed by the House before it could be signed into law by the president.
“I have reason to believe that the White House will sign that bill if they get it,” Blunt, the junior Senator from Missouri, said in a statement provided to LJ.
Limiting partisanship, rolling with changes
One advantage of the ten-year term, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-VT), who sits on the five-member Joint Committee of the Library, told Rollcall.com, is that it “would overlap any presidential term,” since presidents serve in increments of four or eight years. If adopted, no president could serve long enough to nominate more than one Librarian of Congress, barring that appointee’s resignation or death.
Politics aside, another reason supporters feel the limit is now necessary is the accelerating rate of change—in library service, in technology, and in the demands on and challenges to copyright law that tech brings in its wake.
“It allows the president to name the best man or woman there is at a time when, I think, we’re having some remarkable changes, especially in the Copyright Office,” Leahy told Roll Call. “Having a (ten-year) term as opposed to a lifetime term I believe would be a good thing,” said Blount. Sens. Leahy and Schumer joined Blunt and two other Republicans on the joint committee in signing off in support of the term-limit bill.
While none of the supporters explicitly voiced criticism of outgoing Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington as a reason for the bill, the timing is suggestive: the legislation was introduced on Sept. 29, one day before Billington stepped down after 28 years in the post. (Billington, who was appointed by President Reagan, was just the thirteenth person to head up the Library of Congress [LC] since Thomas Jefferson founded the institution in 1800. Billington’s tenure is longer than most even before this legislation: his 12 predecessors served an average of roughly 15 years.)
Billington’s departure, three months earlier than originally planned, came on the heels of the increased scrutiny and criticism LC under Billington faced for its handling of technology, including breakdowns and LC’s failure to hire a permanent CIO. After five temporary CIOs held the position since 2012, on September 8 LC named Bernard A. Barton Jr. to the permanent position.
The criticism also included LC’s handling of tech-inflected copyright challenges such as whether to permit jailbreaking cell phones. (Besides serving as the research arm of Congress and maintaining a vast collection of books, historic documents, and one-of-a-kind literary artifacts, the library also operates the U.S. Copyright Office—a situation some also recently sought to change with legislation.)
Change OK with ALA
Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association (ALA)’s Washington office, told LJ that she’d received advance notice that the ten-year term law was in the works. “I said this was a bill we could support,” she said.
In June, ALA urged Obama to choose a professional librarian to succeed Billington. (Many previous Librarians of Congress have been distinguished scholars in fields other than librarianship).
“Dr. Billington was appointed three decades ago and served the institution well,” Sheketoff told LJ. “But we’re in the 21st century now and new skills are needed…. We need a leader who possesses the skills to bring the library into the 21st century.”
Efforts to contact Billington for this story were unsuccessful. David S. Mao, LC’s Acting Librarian, also declined comment. A spokesman for LC said of the proposal, “A decision like this is up to Congress and the Library will respect and implement whatever decisions Congress makes.”