The Bright Luster of Truth

The Bright Luster of Truth

By Scott Lipkowitz

Carla Hayden’s appointment as the 14th Librarian of Congress languished in the Senate during the summer months of 2016. Writing for the Washington Post online, Peggy McGlone opened her piece on the stalemate by stating, “It seems even a job as uncontroversial as librarian [sic] of Congress isn’t immune to congressional infighting." The incredulity of McGlone’s statement is underlined by an assumption that the Library of Congress (LOC), its executive, and its mission, are ideologically pure: devoid of political concern, dedicated solely to the self-evident benefit of objective truth to the nation’s welfare. The LOC’s mission, as defined in its own annual reports, “is to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people." Despite the idealism expressed in the latter portion of the statement, the LOC is first and foremost Congress’ library; a reality that raises serious questions about its ability to “further the progress of knowledge” in the face of congressional attitudes that have had a historically troubled relationship with the notions of truth and fact. Delving briefly into that history reveals the extent to which the LOC has been forced to wage an uphill battle in pursuit of that ideal. 

Fire and Ideology

When a fire set by British troops on August 14, 1814 consumed the majority of the Library of Congress’ (LOC) collections housed within the Capitol building, Thomas Jefferson was quick to respond. Knowledge and information were necessary to the proper function of democracy, Jefferson argued. Indeed, the very creation of the LOC in 1800 was first and foremost the creation of a legislative library, whose collections functioned to assist and inform the Congress of the United States in the execution of its duties. Thus, to ensure it could continue to perform this function in its hour of need, Jefferson offered his personal collection of some 6,000 volumes as the nucleus of a grand, new congressional library; stating that “there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.” Jefferson’s offer was accepted at the beginning of 1815. 

However, the ideological framework for the LOC envisioned by Jefferson’s statement was significantly harder to inculcate in the minds of the LOC’s principle congressional patrons. The LOC is in theory apolitical: divorced from petty partisan squabbles, dedicated to, as outlined in an 1806 Senate report, the "becoming display of erudition and research [which] gives higher dignity and brighter luster to truth." Congress is decidedly the antithesis of such sentiment: partisan, bickering, and often engaged in the use of information to serve overtly political agendas. Examining the struggles engendered by this conflicting reality reveals both the limits to the execution of the ideal, and the fallaciousness of assertions which assume the LOC’s operation as a truly independent organization. 

Patronage in the Sanctuary of Knowledge

Barriers to the unhindered attainment of the Jeffersonian ideal were erected right at the initial formalization of the LOC’s organizational structure. In 1802, then President Jefferson signed an Act of Congress which created the office of the Librarian of Congress - whose appointment would be the purview of the President - and placed the congressional Joint Committee on the Library (JCL) in oversight of the LOC’s budget and operations. In practice, this meant both tying the LOC to the political system - which for the better part of the 19th century was defined by patronage and spoils - and making its every move subject to congressional whim and attitude.

Ironically, Jefferson the idealist was not immune to the realities of patronage; appointing his friend and one time campaign manager, John Beckley, as the first Librarian. However, subsequent Librarians quickly learned the price of engaging with the apparent political nature of their position. Librarian George Watterston, appointed in 1815, was subsequently dismissed seventeen years later by incoming President Andrew Jackson; the result of Watterston’s opposition to Jackson’s campaign. A more obvious message could not have been sent to his successors: if you wish to make anything of your time as head of the LOC, tread lightly, and remember to whom you owe your station. 

Fulfilling the idealistic mission was also hamstrung by the quid pro quo of the congressional spoils system’s exertion of pressure upon LOC staffing. Historian Jane Rosenberg notes that while the Librarian was in fact responsible for hiring staff, congressional operational oversight and control of the LOC’s budget made it all but impossible for the Librarians to avoid bowing to political demands. Thus, the composition of theLOC’s staff was subject to the whims of individual congressmen, not merit; with political loyalty or the luck of having well placed relations determining who received a position. Aside from making for poor librarians, the presence of overtly political appointees in an institution whose ideological goal was the pursuit of truth for the benefit of the nation belied any possibility that quality, objective information could be provided. Thorvald Solberg, head of the Copyright Office at the turn of the 20th century, drew a similar conclusion. Looking back on the state of the LOC’s staff in 1899, Solberg observed that “as a consequence of giving way to the strong political and social pressures brought to bear [upon it],” the LOC found itself overflowing with “incompetent or otherwise disqualified clerks."  

Attempts to rectify the ills of the patronage system began to gain some traction in the last decades of the 19th century. Civil service reform, and its interest in efficient government, prevailed upon Congress to pass the Pendleton Act in 1883, instituting a merit based examination for appointment to government position. Unfortunately, as Rosenberg points out, the Act’s new requirements did not apply to the vast majority of federal employees, including the staff of the LOC. Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who assumed the LOC executive mantle in 1864, had little by way of success in terms of hiring qualified, apolitical staff: of the seventy-five employees he took on in the thirty years following his initial appointment, only five had any previous experience or training in librarianship. 

Tackling Congressional Opposition

Lack of a competent, professional, non-partisan staff was not all that posed a challenge to the LOC’s ideological foundation. The very Congress it was intended to serve often cultivated a skeptical view of its value. In the initial years of the republic, the United States harbored a potentially understandable animosity towards all things European, including the idea of a national library modeled after the British Museum Library or the Bibliothèque Nationale of France. LOC historian Carl Ostrowski further points out that the notion of a central library in which knowledge was to be concentrated ran contrary to many congressmen’s belief in the newly-minted democratic spirit which necessitated a limited, utilitarian vision for the LOC’s function. Suspicions of this nature can be seen in the opposition to the purchase of Jefferson’s library. Jefferson himself may have argued the virtues of an unbounded store of knowledge. However, many members of Congress took issue with certain ideologies expressed within the Jeffersonian collection, especially those of Voltaire, John Locke, and Rousseau. It seemed that there was, in fact, limits to the information Congress wished to be exposed to. Thus, if the LOC’s Librarians were to transform the LOC into the physical embodiment of the Jeffersonian ideal, careful navigation, and even manipulation, of congressional attitudes would be necessary. 

One strategy employed by Librarian Spofford in the latter half of the 19th century was to appeal to Congress’ national pride and political vanity. John Cole, an LOC employee during the latter half of the twentieth century, notes that Spofford used the prestige of the British Museum Library and the Bibliothèque Nationale to implore Congress to provide for and maintain a library of even greater scope and standing. Within the first two years of Spofford’s tenure he seemed to have a great deal of success: Congress both approved a $160,00 expansion of the LOC’s budget, and had the entirety of the Smithsonian Institute’s library transferred to the LOC. Spofford’s crowning achievement, the passage of the 1870 Copyright Law - which permanently placed the right of deposit for all intellectual property seeking copyright protection within the sole authority of the LOC - can be viewed in a similar light.

Spofford’s successor, John Russell Young, whose friendship with President McKinley clearly denoted the purely political nature of his appointment, employed a different strategy to advance the LOC’s ideological ends: in this case through an increase of the professional bonafides of the staff. Congressional guidelines for LOC employees demanded that they “‘[show] special aptitude… [or] intelligence and integrity;’” language whose ambiguity was clearly intended to enable political lackeys and personal relations to be deemed as qualified staff. Young, however, used that ambiguity, Jane Rosenberg asserts, to appoint qualified personnel - among them Thorvald Solberg - arguing that he had applied the spirit of the law when justifying his actions to the JCL.

Yet, perhaps no Librarian was more successful at squeezing idealistic aspirations out of Congress than Herbert Putnam; the one time head of the Boston Public Library, and the first professional librarian to hold the position. Taking over the LOC’s direction in 1899, Putnam was in tune with both the growing professionalization of librarianship, and with the nascent creation of legislative reference services within the state libraries of New York and Wisconsin. Putnam wined and dined with congressmen of all political persuasions, appealed to the support of party heavy-weights such as Theodore Roosevelt, and played upon those aspects of the cultural milieu - ie. national pride and congressional prejudices - to make an argument for the benefit of these developments to Congress (Rosenberg, 1991). Above all, this meant demonstrating the utility of the LOC’s collections to the day to day realities of governing. 

Acknowledging “the situation that confronts every legislative body: the need of data sought out, digested and brought to bear upon a particular subject,” Putnam emphasized that in the modern era, the quantity and complexity of that data was immense. Yet, Putnam was also careful to clarify what he meant by the term “data;” insisting that it was simply the provision of secondary source material, not the result of primary inquiries. Here the distinction seems to serve the purpose of soothing congressional worries that they would be told what to think, while at the same time asserting the validity of the information they were receiving. Additionally, Putnam argued that as the United States looked across the Atlantic at the carnage of World War I, and assumed an overseas role in its dealings with Cuba and administration of the Philippines, information pertinent to those issues was of vital importance to legislative policy deliberations. That information was contained within the LOC’s collections, but it could only be provided, digested, and applied by trained professionals and subject experts employed by the LOC. In the end, Putnam’s efforts proved successful, and from 1899 to 1939 he succeeded in transforming the LOC from a repository of political lackeys, to a world-leading information organization, primarily through his deft handling of Congress.

A Continuing Controversy

The constant give and take between ideology and reality in the LOC’s operation and mission did not end with Herbert Putnam. Each subsequent Librarian has been required to balance these same opposing forces, including the office’s current occupant Carla Hayden. Hayden’s appointment stalled in the Senate during the summer months of 2016; moving Peggy McGlone to state in the Washington Post online that, “It seems even a job as uncontroversial as librarian [sic] of Congress isn’t immune to congressional infighting." McGlone’s naiveté mirrors a popular misconception surrounding the LOC: namely that it is an apolitical entity. In fact, the long historical tension between Congress and its library - on full display in Hayden’s drawn-out confirmation - was, as we have seen, baked into the relationship from the outset. What that history means to the LOC today is certainly cause for concern. Congress seems, if possible, to be even more at odds with the very ideas of truth and knowledge than in any previous era. If Librarian Hayden is to pursue the ideals of her forebears, she, like them, will have to realize that their attainment can only be accomplished by maintaining a realistic view of the variable, and often hazardous, political landscape that stands in the way.


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