The Library of Congress wasn’t always behind the times. But as information accumulated faster and faster, the institution failed to keep up: Multiple GAO reports noted a failure to hire a permanent chief information officer or institute any coherent strategy to keep pace with 15,000 or so items added to the national collection every day. When Carla Hayden stepped into the role of librarian of Congress in 2016, she was on a mission to modernize, but she was on a rescue mission, too. The rescue mission seems already to have been accomplished, and the modernization is well underway.
The library is a library, of course, and the world’s largest at that — yet it’s also the seat of the U.S. Copyright Office and the Congressional Research Service. That means it bears the same burden as other federal agencies of keeping internal systems up to snuff: beefing up data security and privacy practices, for instance, and determining how to store a mind-boggling amount of materials. But the library also needed to bolster its external capabilities, by transforming analog resources into digital ones and capturing the panoply of digital-native resources generated every day. Newspapers used to come in on microfilm; now they’re collected in easily searchable e-print.
These nuts and bolts of library operations have come with plenty of bells and whistles. The Wall Street Journal reported last week on the Library of Congress’s experimentation with neural networks and other artificially intelligent algorithms to comb through the archives. The tools may turn up information that hasn’t been manually tagged by humans, or information a human wouldn’t think to surface: Search “bicycle,” for instance, and be greeted by an image of an 1800s velocipede — learning something about the era in the process. Or analyze reams of data via the cloud. Or remix your own hip-hop music from samples from centuries of sound.
These initiatives are worth studying well beyond the library world. . As the Library of Congress’s director of digital strategy, Kate Zwaard, told us: “Citizen-centric government and user experience are all actually one thing.” Modernization is essential for Congress, executive agencies, county sheriff’s offices and more so that they may run more safely and smoothly in an online age. But it’s also essential so that citizens may interact with them more smoothly, and more fully, than ever before. Digital government is also by, for and of the people.