It can be maddeningly difficult at times to reconcile the old with the new, and the Library of Congress is no exception.
At first glance, the columns, artwork and leather-bound books of what has been popularly referred to as “America’s library” look resistant to change. However, on the afternoon of June 27, the Civic Digital Fellowship participants were quick to challenge that assumption, making creative suggestions in order to further the Library’s core mission of making knowledge accessible to all. This nicely coincided with the Fellowship’s own goal of “inspiring and empowering people to use their technology skills for social good,” whether through data science, data journalism or applying their talents in government agencies.
The three exhibits which the Civic Digital Fellows were encouraged to examine aided in this effort. First, a collection of the original volumes donated to the Library of Congress by Thomas Jefferson in the aftermath of the 1814 Burning of Washington served as a useful reminder that accumulated knowledge is itself disruptive. Then, moving on to an exhibit about news media during World War I, the ability of journalism and advertisements to guide public opinion became apparent. Finally, a gallery of the work of courtroom sketch artists over the past century demonstrated the ability of innovative thinking to challenge pre-established norms (in this case, courtrooms’ longstanding ban on live cameras).
While viewing these exhibits, the fellows were encouraged to consider the following question: How has the way Americans consume knowledge evolved throughout the years? For example, Jefferson classified the books in his personal library under terms not familiar in today’s day and age – “Memory” instead of history; “Reason” in lieu of philosophy; and “Imagination” rather than art. Similarly, the fellows were asked to identify at least one item or fact from the exhibit whose truth was seemingly well-established at the time but has since fallen into dispute or has been proven incorrect.
Following their exploration of the Library, the fellows met with Barrie Howard, the Library of Congress’s Program Management Specialist for Internship and Fellowship Programs. The topic of their discussion was “Envisioning 2025,” and Howard encouraged the fellows to do exactly that: envision the technology, techniques and best practices that, by the next decade, could help the Library of Congress fulfill its mission of “contributing to the advancement of civilization and knowledge throughout the world.”
“Digital hygiene” was the focus of the dialogue, and Howard invited suggestions from the fellows about how to keep this aspect of the Library of Congress’s services new and original. Among the suggestions were calls for taking greater advantage of the “majestic grandeur of the architecture,” finding ways to do away with the cumbersome paper guide maps in exchange for a digitalized alternative, and adopting the interactive “smart” pen used by some museums to enliven their content for visitors. One of the most interesting suggestions was to provide online finding aids, like an app, for the figures depicted on the Library’s ceiling.
This willingness to rely on the judgement of resident fellows is nothing new for the Library of Congress, which will welcome twenty residents of its own in the fall. Indeed, Howard made the point that the very idea of residencies, taken from the medical and educational communities, is a way to bridge a classroom education with something more experiential. This, when combined with Howard’s assertion that the Library of Congress relies on more specialized collections around the country to fill the gaps in its own knowledge, makes the idea of intellectual collaboration all the more important. A lesson impressed on the participants of the Civil Digital Fellowship as they consider the prospects of post-collegiate work in government.