DC Huskies

Alumni play key roles at Library of Congress

John Cole, ’66, was in danger of becoming a TV-snubbing book snob in the 1960s when the director of the graduate School of Librarianship – now the iSchool – shook up his thinking. Even if they didn’t watch TV, Professor Irving Lieberman told his students it was their duty to learn about it and keep informed about it. The director’s eyes were on the future.

“He kept reminding us that it is a wide and ever-changing world of technology, and as new professionals we should look carefully at new developments and see if we can use them to our advantage,” says Cole, who has carried that message with him throughout his storied career at the Library of Congress – a grand institution undergoing profound changes in the age of digitization.

History buffs who once shuffled through enormous card catalog files can now, in a click, access everything from 19th-century baseball cards and Civil War tunes to presidential papers without ever stepping foot in the library’s reading rooms. Those rooms may be emptier now, but the library’s website is hopping, constantly bringing in new audiences of educators, students, scholars, and others.

“When we started sharing materials online, it transformed the opportunities of our library users and changed the way the Library of Congress is oriented,” says Cole, one of a number of iSchool alumni in leadership positions who have helped guide the institution in the electronic era.

Cole has dedicated almost half a century of service to the library, passionately promoting reading and literacy as Founding Director of its Center for the Book. He has used lectures, conferences, symposia, publications – even that provocative medium of television – to get his message across. He plays a key role in the library’s National Book Festival, which attracts more than 80,000 visitors, and chairs its Literacy Award program. He is also the library’s leading historian, with a doctorate in American civilization from Georgetown University.

Cole was one of two outstanding graduates nominated for a Library of Congress management internship by leaders at the UW school in 1966, when libraries were just beginning to explore automating operations and the new field of “media studies.”

“Even then, people at the iSchool had the foresight to see what was happening in the field,” he says.

The other top graduate chosen for an internship was Mary Levering, ’66, who would spend 45 years in key positions at the nation’s library, putting to use problem-solving skills honed at the UW school. Her responsibilities ranged from directing legal research for the institution’s massive Law Library of Congress to reviewing materials for the Congressional Research Service, which prepares background reports on pressing issues for legislators.

“We would read everything produced by CRS analysts to make sure it was unbiased, non-partisan, well-researched and documented, and understandable by a reasonably educated lay person,” says Levering. Some of the studies ran 200 pages — “and we never missed a deadline.”

In the 1990s, she traveled the country as a senior manager of the U.S. Copyright Office, which is part of the Library of Congress and the source of much of its deposited material.

“The copyright world was grappling with implications of the Internet at the time,” says Levering, who holds a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center. “I was helping to develop fair-use guidelines for using copyrighted works in digital form.”

Levering retired in 2011 with a big-picture perspective of what is now the world’s largest library, overseen by a staff of more than 3,000.

“The Library of Congress is an enormously important institution. This is our national repository, the repository of our culture, our history, our literature – one of the most important cultural centers of our patrimony,” says Levering, who, like Cole, is a Distinguished Alumni of the iSchool.

She describes the Library of Congress’ collections as “rich and magnificent.” On average 15,000 items pour in each working day, from maps and music to movies and manuscripts from around the world.  Library staff sorts and sifts and adds approximately 12,000 of those items to permanent collections before the next day’s deluge.

Keeping the behemoth institution apace with ever-advancing technology has been a formidable challenge. Government watchdogs have recently criticized its top leader, retiring Librarian of Congress James Billington, for letting it lag behind in technological areas, including digitization of its more than 30 million books. First priority for digitization has been rare manuscripts, maps, and images.

“I think the library is struggling with the rate at which technology is changing and keeping up with the enormity of its collections,” says Jennifer Gonzalez, ’13, a legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress. “For me, working with digital collections, it is exciting to work on creating some of the solutions to these challenges.”

The Library of Congress dates back to 1800, when Congress first founded it as a research arm in the Capitol building. In 1814, British troops burned that stately building to the ground, destroying the library’s volumes. An almost destitute Thomas Jefferson offered up his personal 6,487-book library — more than twice the size of the original collection, with an added international focus — as a replacement, and Congress snagged it for $23,950.

“His library was comprehensive,” says Cole. “People eventually realized it could be used not only for Congressional reference, but also as a great base for a national people’s library.”

Two centuries years later, that national people’s library has grown into an international people’s library — the world’s largest. It has offices everywhere from Islamabad to Nairobi dedicated to acquiring materials in almost 500 different languages.

Michael Neubert, ’90, can attest to the reach of the library’s international expansions. His 25 years at the Library of Congress include stints directing the Cairo acquisitions office, establishing library exchanges in three newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union, and helping train librarians in Iraq.

Neubert began his career at the Library of Congress in 1990 as a reference librarian specializing in Russian language collection development. For more than 10 years, the Soviet studies scholar personally reviewed the bulk of Russian monographs coming into the institution. He, too, had been selected by the UW library school for a prestigious Library of Congress internship.

“Having completed my master’s degree, I felt I had a particularly well-informed point of view about the role of libraries in society that was more helpful in day-to-day work than I would have guessed.”

The public Internet was still in its fitful infancy when Neubert arrived in 1990, a year before the debut of the World Wide Web.

“In essence most of what I work on now didn’t exist,” he says.

His official title today is Supervisory Digital Projects Specialist in the Collections and Services Directorate. He spends part of his time coordinating digital conversion projects and the other overseeing the hands-on archiving of websites to add to permanent collections. His team captures website content from around the globe, terabyte by terabyte.

“We have prioritized certain areas, such as national election campaign sites, sites of the legislative branch of the federal government, or sites of noted think tanks and organizations influencing public policy,” says Neubert.

Harvesting is comprehensive, right down to the Facebook page of a here-and-gone campaign opponent in a Congressional election.  “For campaign websites, we don’t assess the sites, we just crawl them,” says Neubert. “The challenge is in finding them all.”

Gonzalez’s research focuses on one site. She is web editor for the Law Library of Congress, in addition to working as legal information analyst and digitization coordinator. She champions the easy download. “I work behind the scenes to keep our content user-friendly in searches.”

Gonzalez graduated from the iSchool with a certificate from its Law Librarianship program – a program ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report. She also holds a J.D. from Pace University School of Law. The iSchool, she says, gave her a broad grounding in librarianship that serves her well.

“The Library of Congress is an enormous institution and my iSchool training enables me to understand and engage with the wide range of colleagues here.”

She has been at her Law Library job for two years and remains staggered by the scale of this 2.65-million-volume institution within an institution.

“The Law Library is the largest in the world,” she says. “Over half the books are in foreign languages. We have specialists writing about every jurisdiction in the world.”

One of her first big projects there was putting American Indian legal materials online, including constitutions and charters signed with Indians dating back to 1810. Many are in original native languages.

“We wanted to put the collection online so that Indian nations would have access to these laws,” she says. “It’s an exciting collection.”

The next project is to finish putting online all of America’s historic treaties and statutes.

“I am thrilled,” says Gonzalez, “to be part of making U.S. laws freely and easily accessible to the world.”

Her advice for future information school graduates considering working at the nation’s most prestigious library is to stay flexible. Know technology, but master traditional librarianship skills.

“One is essential to understanding the present and future, the other to understanding the past and the present.”


Story by Mary Lynn Lyke, originally appeared on the UW iSchool website.