Summit Sneak Peek: Libraries as the Original Search Engine with Kate Zwaard

Code for America Summit is just around the corner, we’re highlighting some of the people behind this year’s inspiring Summit content. These are leaders in tech and government who not only share our vision for a radically improved future for government services, but show what works and imagine what’s possible.

Want to hear more? Tune into the livestream starting at 9 a.m. EST next Thursday, March 12.

On this year’s Code for America Summit mainstage, Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, and Kate Zwaard, Director of Digital Strategy, will discuss how the Library of Congress is adapting their timeless mission against the idea of “software eating the world.” Ahead of Summit, we asked Kate a few questions about the long history and evolution of libraries, and bringing digital platforms and strategy to a 220-year-old institution.

“Digital strategy” is not a term that people typically associate with libraries. Tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to your current role.

It has always been our mission in libraries to make information as findable, useable, and widely available as possible. (In fact, you can buy a mug at our gift shop that reads “Librarian, the original search engine”!) But as the nation produces more of its intellectual capital in digital forms, and as our users have changing service, use, and delivery expectations, libraries have had to evolve—and continue evolving. My job at the Library of Congress is to help the institution think broadly, imaginatively, and practically about how we can technology to serve the public.

I started my career in government as a statistician at the U.S. Government Printing Office, where I worked on a team building a new information system for Federal government publications ( I fell in love with software’s power to reimagine a user experience that serves more people even better. I later moved to the Library of Congress as an engineering manager, leading a team that built the technical infrastructure to store, organize, keep, and serve the Library’s digital collections. During my time with that group, we took in three petabytes of digital materials, including digitized hard copy material like historic newspapers, and born-digital material, like web archives and the very first born-digital “personal papers” collected by the Library. Building on that experience, a few years ago, I launched the Library of Congress Labs team, which later expanded into the role of Digital Strategy Director for the Library. Some of the project we’ve launched in Labs include an Innovator in Residence program, a Congressional Data Challenge, a crowdsourcing platform and some forays into computing at scale and machine learning.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be building toward the future and to be supported by the long history of librarianship—a history of careful thought about how we can leverage new ways of information exchange to increase knowledge and learning in all its contexts, while centering professional ethics.

What would people be most surprised to hear about working at the Library of Congress?

I am surprised nearly every day by the Library. It is so big and complex that you really do get to fall more deeply in love with it all the time. You might already know that it’s the largest library that ever existed on planet Earth (and probably the entire solar system), but the volume of information it processes weekly is astonishing. Each day about twenty-two thousand items arrive at the Library. Approximately ten thousand of these items will become part of the permanent collections. That means every day, we add the equivalent of my hometown library to the collections. And that isn’t even counting the digital collections, the web archives, the eBooks, and the donated material that arrive on our virtual loading docks every day. It’s an incredible machine.

Another thing folks might not know is that the Library does a significant amount of its own software development. We have had active agile software development projects here for more than 15 years, and have been publishing open source and open access for a while, as well.

In addition to the incredible collections (the “world’s largest collection” of many things, including comic books, baseball cards, and crystal flutes—the instrument, not the beverage glass), you can find answers here. Anyone over the age of 16 can get a readers card and use the on-site collections, and anyone can get help with their questions through our “Ask a Librarian” service.

What does “designing better government” look like to you?

User-centered, responsive, and participatory. We are extremely lucky to have an incredible User Experience team at the Library, matched with the power of reference librarians and our many other subject matter experts. From a digital strategy perspective, our job is more enabling our staff than anything else.

Our vision under the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, is that “all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress.” In that connection, we are able to democratic access by making an increasing number of our collections available from the web. For example, we hold the personal papers of Alexander Hamilton, including the letter where he calls Eliza the “best of wives and best of women.” We’ve been digitizing for a long time, so it can seem like old news, but I think it’s worth reflecting on how transformative it’s been to use technology to make treasures like that letter freely available to people who can’t travel to Washington, D.C. to read them.

We also design better government by asking people to participate. The Library does that through its collection, like StoryCorps, in which the Library collects the words of people with a variety of experiences and makes them available from the American Folklife Center. We also do it by acknowledging the wisdom of others and asking them to contribute. The Library has had photos on Flickr, for example for more than 10 years. We invite people to tag and caption them and then we incorporate some of that data into the collections. Another big program here was a crowdsourced transcription project, one of Dr. Hayden’s first initiatives. She wanted a way for people to engage with our collections, a place for the curious to start, and to show everyone that they are welcome here by inviting them to contribute.

What are you excited to see at Summit?

Our Labs program has been working on maturing its experimentation and piloting processes, hoping that we can scale it to be of greater service to the institution. I’m looking forward to talking with colleagues about what has worked for them in that regard.

I’m also looking forward to the nitty gritty stuff, like procurement, how people are dealing with technical debt and prioritizing engineering needs, and where we can contribute more to the community of practice.

One last thing: if you attend Summit—please stop me in the hall and say hello! I’d love to hear what you’re working on. Or find me on Twitter @kzwa.

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