About three weeks ago, back when the world made sense and talk of Donald Trump in the Oval Office was almost exclusively preceded by a “wouldn’t it be hilarious if,” Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian Emeritus at Harvard, mused about the future of the Library of Congress in a Clinton administration. “When the new president, if she is Hillary Clinton, moves into the White House,” asks Darnton, “will she unpack her library in the spirit of Walter Benjamin—releasing memories of adventures attached to books? Not likely.” A sensible conclusion. Darnton continues, undeterred: “the arrival of a new president at this moment, not long after the dawn of the digital age, could open an opportunity to reorient literature and learning in a way that was envisioned by the Founders of our country, one that would bring books within the reach of the entire citizenry.” This in the wake of President Obama’s precedent-setting appointment of an African-American woman, Dr. Carla Hayden, as the Librarian of Congress. (Hayden’s defence of patron privacy in the wake of the Patriot Act is the stuff of legend in library circles). Darnton must have thought the time ripe: “Two powerful women located at opposite ends of the axis between Capitol Hill and the White House could revive cultural institutions, restore the public domain, and repair the fault lines that run through our information system. More power to them.”
Having reread Darnton’s hopeful article I cannot help but feel a sense of dread. In the piece, Darnton outlines three specific points where Hayden should make ground: support open-access publishing and challenge publisher oligopolies; team up with Google, the Internet Archive, and HathiTrust to kick digitization initiatives into overdrive and broaden access; and, undermine lobbying efforts to extend copyright while bolstering the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR). For after-all, “Her library is like no other in the country,” writes Darnton, “It is a national institution, the main repository of our country’s culture.” A tall order, no doubt, but it is likely that Clinton would have supported Hayden in these endeavours — not out of pure altruism, but out of her proven commitment to public goods, like education and health, and her stance on copyright restructuring.
What will the Trump library look like as of January? Impossible to tell at the moment, mainly because he hasn’t been forthright about any of these issues. Nevertheless we can tease bits out of his demagoguery. His market-driven approach to public goods makes everyone that works or thinks about public institutions, like universities and public libraries, quiver; one thing is for certain, Trump will not be the second Carnegie. His open critique of the TPP puts him, strangely enough, on the side of copyright reform; but this is a red-herring. He doesn’t so much care about the absurd copyright agreements proposed by the TPP but the jobs of American workers that would be jeopardized. While he hasn’t gestured to FASRT directly, Trump’s general stance on broadening information access is disquieting. First, it’s clear that Trump has no idea how the internet functions. “We have to go see Bill Gates and a lot of different people that really understand what’s happening,” he shouted. “We have to talk to them maybe in certain areas closing that internet up in some way.” Second, Trump’s disdain of journalism is well-documented, time and time suggesting that he’d like to see libel laws extended to curtail free-speech. And finally, given his criticism of bloated government, it’s possible that Trump will support having the Copyright Office become an independent organization outside the purview of the Library of Congress, opening it up to concentrated lobbying.
Carla Hayden is the most influential information professional in America, but the Librarian of Congress’ voice could not be heard amidst the cacophony following Tuesday’s election. This is telling, I think. I only hope that in the months to come she restates her commitment to fulfilling the mission of the Library of Congress—that is, to broaden access to information for all citizens. Yes, Hayden’s appointment is barrier-breaking. But going forward she has an opportunity to set a precedent for the entire profession. Now is not the time for stereotypical meekness and neutrality: she must be loud, boisterous, and political.