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Brewster Kahle as the Next Librarian of Congress: Panacea or Palliative?

800px-Brewster_Kahle_2009With James Billington set to retire in January from his position as the Librarian of Congress, talk is turning to his possible replacements.

One of the names being bandied about is activist, digital advocate, and founder of the Internet Archive, Brewster Kahle. He’s being put forward as a candidate who can solve the systemic problems faced by the Library of Congress, as someone who could inject sanity into the mess that is the Copyright Office’s orphan works solution.

As Slate put it:

Bringing the library into the 21st century means leading its digital transformation—in ways that don’t merely copy books, films, music, and more onto disk drives and leave it at that. (Though even this much hasn’t been done). Digital technology gives us an opportunity to share knowledge, a linchpin in new scholarship, arts, and the overall information needs of an advancing society.

One of the trickiest digital transitions has been copyright. Congress gave far too much power to Hollywood and the other corporate members of what has become a virtual copyright cartel, and the U.S. Copyright Office—part of the Library of Congress—has been mostly a water-carrier for the industry. The next librarian can help steer the nation back toward a more balanced, common-sense approach to copyright that doesn’t have such contempt for the public’s rights.

Most of all, we need our great national library to honor its role as one, albeit the biggest and most influential, of thousands of these essential public centers. My small town’s public library isn’t even a blip on the LoC’s radar, but it is cut from much of the same cloth—and it serves its community in ways that transcend what media live on its shelves and in its computers.

By my reckoning, Kahle gets all of this, and much more. He’s brilliant, technical, with proven administrative skills—and he loves libraries and their essential role in society. The Librarian of Congress can be the advocate for all of them, and by extension for the spreading of knowledge everywhere.

Kahle has already indicated that he would be honored to be the next Librarian of Congress, and he has a large and growing support base (there’s even a #draftBrewster hashtag on Twitter).

But will he really have that much of an impact, when he has to fight against lobbyists, an entrenched bureaucracy, and a Congress ready to politicize even the most neutral of topics?


If I were Disney or another copyright maximalist, I would heartily support the campaign to make Brewster Kahle the next LoC. I can’t think of a better way to hobble an opponent than to bury him in federal bureaucracy.

An appointment as Librarian of Congress would not give Kahle the reins of power or significantly better access to lawmakers; the power to make fundamental changes to copyright law would still reside with Congress. And as for access, Kahle is the head of the Internet Archive, the ad hoc, unofficial, unauthorized, modern-day equivalent of the Library of Congress.

As the founder of the IA, Kahle already has the ear of everyone in Congress who is willing to listen (and if he doesn’t then he’s not the right person for this job). If he becomes the Librarian of Congress, at best Kahle might have slightly better access to and influence over lawmakers, but that would be balanced out by the quagmire which is our govt’s bureaucracy.

Furthermore, he would still have to work against moneyed interests and their lobbyists, who have deep pockets and thus louder voices.

And that is why I am less than optimistic.

If Kahle does get the job, I think the best we might hope for is the partial success that is the Google Books project, where users have access to public domain works but only snippets from many in-copyright works.

But the far more likely outcome would be something like the national digital archives of the Netherlands. That effort took seven years, cost over $200 million, and resulted in an archive which is still largely inaccessible.

Fast Company:

Sound and Vision, together with two other national institutions, finished digitizing the bulk of the Netherlands’ audiovisual archives last year, for a cost of $202 million over seven years. The project ran smoothly and transparently, digitizing 138,932 hours of film and video, 310,566 hours of audio, and 2,418,872 photos.

For all of Sound and Vision’s efforts, though, only 2.3% of its digitized archive is publicly available online. Schools and researchers are allowed to access 15% of the archive on Sound and Vision’s website. For the rest, Sound and Vision’s administrators have to ask the copyright holders’ permission to release their clips outside of the building. Frequently, it involves making calls to several people, and sometimes they say no. "Maybe digital formats are exploitable, but how much are old newscasts worth?" says Tom de Smet, Sound and Vision’s head archivist.

While I fully agree that the Library of Congress is ridiculously behind the times and I support Kahle’s campaign for the position of Librarian of Congress, I think we should look for better ways to reform that organization rather than, as the military idiom goes, trying to stiffen a bucket of snot with a handful of buckshot.

Does anyone have a better idea to propose?

images by Joi Ito-Jeffrey-

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David H. Rothman September 14, 2015 um 11:45 am

Brewster’s a great infrastructure guy, Nate, and I’d love to see him preside over LoC projects in that area. But, no, he should not be Librarian. While LoC is to serve Congress, we’re really talking in effect about activities ranging from curation of old paper manuscripts to popularization of reading and topics such as U.S. history. Brewster is a brilliant tech guy. Let him play to his strengths as a specialist. Further thoughts at

As for partisans bogging things down, that’s always a risk—but worth it. Significantly, the red states tend to be the ones with the crappiest access to library materials. Well-stocked digital libraries could make even more of a difference than in the blue states. Ideally this issue can transcend ideology. None than William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote two "On the Right" columns in favor the TeleRead vision. I’m waiting for Obama to catch up. If the GOP is smart, it’ll go after the President for doing too LITTLE.

Unrelated: Best of luck with your technical issues!


Nate Hoffelder September 14, 2015 um 11:51 am

David, I saw your post, yes. I linked to it near the beginning of the post. That’s what inspired my post.

David H. Rothman September 14, 2015 um 12:33 pm

@Nate: Thanks. I hope that readers will go beyond the link since even the most attentive followers of TDR may not have clicked there. Mea culpa. 😉 People need to know the cons, not just the pros, of appointing Brewster as librarian. Once again–he’s an infrastructure genius and I fervently hope that LoC can use him that way. That’s my "better idea" in terms of reforming LoC on the tech side at least.

Nate Hoffelder September 14, 2015 um 12:44 pm

It’s okay. Your point is worth calling out, but I couldn’t find a spot to fit it in the post.

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