Anyone working at the forefront of technology knows just how difficult it is to keep up with the evolving digital world, and perhaps no one is better positioned to understand this than Bernard (Bud) Barton, Jr., who was just hired as the Library of Congress’s new chief information officer. Last week, Barton started his job as the person responsible for taking the keeper of America’s most prized documents and records into the digital age. The details of how he will achieve this are still in the making, but a lot is riding on his appointment as the Library of Congress struggles to modernize.
In a report released in late March, the government’s watchdog agency blasted the Library for failing to manage the computer system that’s integral to its mission of makings it resources—books, sound recordings, films—available and useful to Congress and the American public. One main critique was that the Library had been without a permanent chief information officer since 2012. Five different people filled the role, but those appointments were temporary, leaving the Library without the leadership it needed to address its inadequate technology. The GAO recommended hiring a permanent CIO to help bring the 215-year-old Library’s collections and information sharing into the digital age.
In an interview with Fortune four days into the job, Barton—who previously worked as CIO and deputy administrator for the Defense Technical Information Center, a resource for the Department of Defense and government-funded research, development, technical and engineering information—was scant on details about how he would improve the Library’s technological prowess but said that “our first initiative has got to revolve around the GAO audit and their recommendations.”
Barton says one of the Library’s biggest challenges includes storage. “Just from a physical standpoint, we are bringing in a lot of content both physical and digital, and I see that as something that the library as a whole is going to have to address,” he says. Because technology makes it easier for people to create content like sound recordings and maps, the institution has more and more cultural knowledge it must capture. The enormous size of its digital archive—it deals in petabytes, equal to 1,000 terabytes—and the expectation that it will continue to grow, the Library needs to do things like determine how to manage the electricity needed to run its data centers in the long-term.
The Library of Congress, founded in 1800 by an act of Congress under President John Adams, is known as the nation’s oldest cultural institution. While it was started simply as a “suitable apartment” for “such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress,” the Library is now a repository for more than 160 million items, including printed materials in 460 languages, legal materials, films, maps, sheet music, sound recordings, and North America’s largest rare book collection. The Library was even an Internet pioneer—its Thomas.gov made legislative information freely available online in 1995—but for two decades critics have assailed the institution for technological deficiencies that—according to the March GAO report—have put “the library’s systems and information at risk of compromise.”
The Library has endured much of that criticism under the leadership of James Billington, who reportedly doesn’t use email, rarely relies on a cellphone, and often communicates with staff via fax. After rebuffing questions about retirement for years, in June, Billington, 86, announced that he would retire in January 2016, after nearly three decades in the job. (The Librarian of Congress is the rare executive position that doesn’t turn over with new administrations.) The Rhodes Scholar was appointed head librarian by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and has been blamed for letting the Library fall behind the digital times. A 2013 audit, for instance, found that just a small fraction of its 24 million books were available online and millions of items were stored in overflowing buildings and warehouses, altogether lost to the public.
This is what Barton is up against.
In the March GAO report, the watchdog agency specifically called out the Library’s investment management—or lack thereof. It said that the Library has failed to “review all key investments” and adequately track its IT spending and inventory. For instance, the Library’s inventory said it had 18,000 computers in use, but officials stated that Library actually had fewer than 6,500. Barton says he’s already started improving the Library’s investment management so it can be done in time for the fiscal year 2017 budget. His goal is to set up specific milestones to assess the success of a particular project while it’s ongoing, not just at the very end. He says that will help ensure the Library is “mak[ing] appropriate decisions so we stay within budget.”
Another priority is addressing the GAO’s concerns about the security of the Library’s IT systems. Barton says the Library will be implementing the risk management framework developed by the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology that outlines how federal agencies should manage their cybersecurity.
The titanic task of bringing the Library into the digital age lured Barton to the job, as did the Library’s storied history. “From a library specialist point of view, the Library of Congress has always been the apex of a job assignment. It being the oldest cultural organization in the country, it really just appealed to me that I can take my past experience and apply it to a place that’s going to make a difference and be a real challenge.” Working in the Department of Defense was a way to contribute to the nation, says Barton, a military brat who served in the Air Force. “Now being in the legislative branch, I’m very hopeful that my skill sets will allow for me to help move the Library forward.”