Thursday, April 02, 2015

Old Librarians Never Die, They Just Turn The Page

The Library of Congress - IT-free zone
James Billington has been First Librarian for longer than most people have been alive. He must know a great many secrets about American politicians, because they want him gone but no one is doing anything to push him out of the Library of Congress.

Mr. Billington was appointed by Ronald Reagan, back in the days before we all had smartphones and could not imagine life without Internet access. He rose to the top of the librarian pile when computers were fairly big and bulky and slow.

Thirty years ago, computers were not seen as critical components of business infrastructure. If you had to look something up, you went to a file cabinet and rifled through index cards or folders that someone was paid to file in proper order. If you had to ask a question, you walked up to the person with the answer and spoke to them directly.

The Library of Congress continues to operate at a technological level that fits in with the era that Mr. Billington is comfortable with, namely, the time period when he took charge of America's library. He does not use e-mail. Nothing can replace the feel of a piece of paper, or the personal contact of a phone call.

The gentleman receives a considerable salary, allowing him to live quite comfortably. That the job has grown well beyond his capabilities does not matter, because this is a government post and no one gets fired from a bureacracy. He likes going to work, if only because it gives him something to do. Clearly the man has no hobbies. Or maybe the thought of being stuck in the house with a nagging wife is too unbearable to consider resigning a position he continues to fill in the same way he always has, and to hell with those young whippersnappers and their new-fangled gadgets.

An examination of the Library of Congress has revealed some startling deficiencies in the technology area, and Mr. Billington is under fire for not hiring someone to manage IT matters.

Safe in his job, Mr. Billington brushes off the criticism and suggestions and demands. Members of Congress think he's grand, so why worry about some accounting office whinge?

His library fields questions from those same representatives, but you do not hear any of them complaining about the long delays in obtaining old documents or other reference material. Bureacracies move at a slow pace. Why bring in some IT professional to speed up one cog in the machine? Things were fine in 1985 without all this technology, and everything will continue to be fine going forward.

Why, if Congress wanted a quicker response they would be demanding that he pack up his desk and go. Unless, of course, in all that catalogued and filed research material is a private collection of items that might be of a more, shall we say, personal nature. Make a move to fire the librarian and documents thought lost could suddenly appear. They say that J. Edgar Hoover guaranteed his tenure with secret files intended to silence those who thought it was time for him to step down and turn the FBI over to a younger, more vibrant director. When a system works, why re-invent the wheel?

A man in his 80s is not in any particular hurry. Where is he headed, after all, except to his final breath? Why rush?

Don't you just love the smell of paper in the morning? It smells like nostalgia.

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