What Does the Librarian of Congress Do?

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

The Librarian of Congress doesn’t need vocational experience as a librarian or a library science degree to hold the position. He—every Librarian since the position was created in 1802 has been male—is appointed by the President of the United States, must be approved by the Senate, and is responsible for the world’s largest library.

That’s quite a lot to have on one person’s shoulders.

The Librarian is in charge of overseeing the Library of Congress, managing congressional relations, appointing staff—including the Poet Laureate—and supervising administrative work related to budgetary concerns, legal services, communications, and events.

The Librarian also oversees the Copyright Office, which in 2013 registered 496,599 claims to copyright and forwarded almost 642,000 copies of works to the Library’s collections. In a 2010 statement, current Librarian of Congress James H. Billington explained that every three years, in accordance with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) [PDF], the Librarian reexamines the copyright law in relation to new technologies to reassess who is eligible to circumvent the pre-existing regulations “in order to engage in noninfriging uses of works.”

For example, in 2010, Billington approved the use of short clips of copyrighted motion pictures in documentaries and noncommercial videos saying that it was solely “for the purpose of criticism or comment, when the person engaging in circumvention reasonably believes that it is necessary to fulfill that purpose.” The 2010 ruling was based on a previous decision to allow film and media studies professors to create compilations of film clips for instructional purposes.

This year, Billington announced his retirement from what is considered to be a life-long post. During his 28-year run, he’s ushered the institution into the modern age by making more digitized materials available online, creating resource sites like Congress.gov, and giving the Library a social media presence.

However, his departure follows a 2013 audit that found that millions of items were stuck in buildings and warehouses and not available to the public. A more recent government investigation noted Billington’s inability to manage the Library’s technological resources, finding “widespread weaknesses” when it came to keeping the Library up-to-date.

With Billington stepping down on January 1, 2016, it’ll be up to the president to find a worthy replacement.