America’s Researcher and Curator: The Librarian of Congress

By Ashford University Staff

library of congress

Perched atop Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., right next to the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court, sits the impressive edifice of the Thomas Jefferson building, one of three enormous buildings that make up the Library of Congress. Founded in 1800, the Library is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Overseeing it all is the Librarian of Congress. But what exactly does the Librarian of Congress do?

Like Supreme Court Justices or the Surgeon General, the Librarian of Congress is nominated by the President. The nomination must then be approved by the Senate. Up until 2015, the Librarian of Congress was considered a lifetime position – which explains why only 14 people have ever held the job. A new law, however, placed a 10-year term limit on Librarians of Congress. The newest Librarian of Congress was just confirmed in July 2016. Her name is Carla Hayden, and she is the first woman and the first person of African-American heritage to hold the position. Hayden has an extensive background as a librarian, having served as the CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The World’s Biggest Library

The job of Librarian of Congress comes with some major responsibilities. Of course, the biggest part of the job is overseeing the Library’s sprawling collection. This task is not small, considering it is the largest library in the world. The Library contains more than 162 million items that occupy about 838 miles of shelves. The collection includes more than 38 million books, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, 7.1 million sheets of music, and 70 million manuscripts. The Library has even begun archiving every tweet that is sent. Yes, if you are an active Twitter user, you probably have writings in the Library of Congress! Every day, an additional 12,000 items are added to the Library’s collection. That’s a lot of material to curate.

To add extra pressure to the Librarian of Congress’ job, the collection contains many priceless artifacts. It includes a Gutenberg Bible from the 15th century, personal papers from 23 U.S. Presidents, a Buddhist sutra dating back to 770 A.D., a newspaper from 1659, a 1507 world map that features the first known citation of America, and many other treasures. The Librarian of Congress must protect all of these cultural wonders.

At the same time, the Librarian of Congress must also manage the more mundane tasks associated with the operation of a mammoth institution. Operating with a total fiscal appropriation of $630.8 million, the Library employs more than 3,000 permanent workers. As the head of the institution, the Librarian of Congress must oversee the budget, handle communications, and coordinate special events for the Library.

A Congressional Resource

Even though the position is appointed by the President, the Librarian of Congress is considered part of the Legislative branch of the federal government and is expected to provide support to the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congressional Research Service and the Law Library of Congress are two of the main resources the Librarian of Congress manages for our nation’s legislators.

The Congressional Research Service provides policy and legal analysis to members of Congress. It is a non-partisan entity meant to deliver authoritative, confidential, and objective research on virtually any topic to Senators and Representatives. The goal is to give legislators unbiased facts that they can use to guide policy decisions.

The Law Library of Congress functions in a similar capacity to the Congressional Research Service. The main difference between the two services is that the Law Library focuses specifically on legal matters. It is, in fact, the biggest law library in the world and strives to be an exhaustive legal resource. The Law Library of Congress contains more than three million volumes spanning centuries and covering nearly every legal jurisdiction around the world.

Beyond Borders

The global reach of the Librarian of Congress is further exemplified by the creation of the World Digital Library. Working with Google and the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), the Library of Congress created the World Digital Library to offer an online resource where people all over the world can view materials from all countries and cultures. It includes material culled from libraries, museums, universities, and other international organizations. The goal of the World Digital Library is to promote intercultural understanding. To that end, the World Digital Library includes works in more than 100 languages, including several endangered languages.

More than Just Books

The Librarian of Congress also plays a major role in the preservation of classic films. Each year since 1989, the Librarian of Congress has headed up the team in charge of the National Film Registry. Up to 25 films of cultural, historical, or aesthetic value are added to the Registry each year, ensuring that they will be preserved for future generations to enjoy. The Registry includes nearly 700 films so far, spanning more than a century of motion pictures. The earliest film on the Registry is the 1891 short Newark Athlete and the most recent is 13 Lakes, a nature documentary filmed in 2004.

Protecting Writers and Other Artists

Another huge entity that falls under the Librarian of Congress’ purview is the U.S. Copyright Office. As its name implies, the Copyright Office administers all copyrights registered in the United States. Copyrighting is an important process offered to writers and other creative types to protect them against artistic theft, both intentional and unintentional. A copyright also gives owners legal recourse in the event that their rights are infringed.

Anyone who has created a book, movie, software, photograph, music, or other works of authorship can apply for a copyright. It is an easy but long process. You can either register your work online or you can download the registration form and send it in to the Copyright Office with two copies of the work being registered and a small fee.

The Poet Laureate

There is one other interesting responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the Librarian of Congress: appointing the nation’s Poet Laureate. Properly known as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position was created to help promote the art of poetry in the United States. The Poet Laureate’s job description is extremely short, consisting of a mandatory poetry reading to kick off the poet’s one-year term, another mandatory reading at the end of the term, and the annual selection of the Witter Bynner Fellows. Official responsibilities are intentionally kept light so that the Poet Laureate can focus on writing.

Most Poets Laureate, however, have used the visibility of the position to develop programs to encourage the writing and reading of poetry. For example, Maxine Kumin initiated poetry workshops for women, and Robert Hass created the Watershed conference to bring together novelists, poets, and other storytellers. Some of America’s other notable Poets Laureate have included Robert Penn Warren, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, James Dickey, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove. Currently, the post is held by Juan Felipe Herrera.

A Glorious Undertaking

The Librarian of Congress is a big job, but it is also uniquely rewarding. How many other positions are responsible for preserving America’s culture, protecting and promoting artistic endeavors in our country, and advising our nation’s leaders on important matters of legislation? As Petrarch noted in a quote that is engraved into the west corridor of the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson building, “Glory is acquired by virtue but preserved by letters.”


Written by Erik Siwak, Communications Manager for Bridgepoint Education



(n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2016, from Dr. Carla Hayden to serve as the next Librarian of Congress. (2016, July 16). Retrieved July 25, 2016, from Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved July 25, 2016, from https://en/



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