How the Largest Library in the World Embraces Digital Transformation

This interview is an excerpt from GovLoop’s guide, “Going Digital: Your Guide to Becoming a Modern Government.” Download the full guide here

Imagine being responsible for elevating the digital planning and initiatives for the largest library in the world. For Kate Zwaard, Director of Digital Strategy at the Library of Congress (LOC), that is both her reality and passion.

Zwaard is spearheading a collaborative three-year directional plan that harnesses technology to bridge geographical divides, expands LOC’s reach and enhances its services. She has a small team of five people that collaborates with Library staff to tackle massive projects and serve millions of visitors.

LOC currently provides machine-readable access to metadata and items on, 25 million downloadable bibliographic records and the text of 13 million digitized newspaper pages. In 2018, the Library welcomed 114 million visits to its websites and 1.9 million to its physical buildings.

Zwaard recently sat down with GovLoop to discuss the Library’s Digital Strategy, which came out October 2018, and how LOC is taking a collaborative and human-centered design approach to serve visitors in this digital age.

The interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GOVLOOP: What’s your elevator pitch about the digital transformation work happening at LOC?

ZWAARD: Broadly speaking, our vision for the next five years in terms of a digital strategy is really captured in these points. One is that we want to throw open the treasure chest. And, in libraries, that’s our major focus. That’s the reason we wake up in the morning. We’ve collected this material on behalf of the American people, and we want to be able to share it. And there are a couple of different ways we’re thinking about doing that. One is that we’re exponentially growing in our collections. So, even as we’re constantly digitizing physical material, we’re also collecting born-digital material through various programs, including web archiving.

We’re thinking about ways that people are using computers to do computational analysis. We want to enable that research by making sure our collections are available in machine-readable ways, that we are providing access to our material through APIs and other bulk data interfaces. The second big section of the digital strategy is about connecting.

The vision of the Library of Congress is that all Americans are connected to the Library of Congress. And we think technology’s going to be a really important part of that. We want to be where people are asking questions. In a way, structuring our data to make it machine-readable makes that even more possible. We want it to be attractive to the folks who are building the knowledge interfaces of the future. We want to inspire lifelong relationships with every visit. We get a lot of traffic from websites to interesting items in our newspaper collection, for example. We want to use that to draw them into deeper research and deeper knowledge.

Can you briefly talk about your role in implementing the strategy?

I feel really lucky that I started here as an engineering manager, working on software, making software to manage digital collections. That gave me the opportunity to meet people throughout the Library, understand their needs, understand what they wanted. I think that has led to our team taking a very collaborative and consensus-driven approach. We invited members from different parts of the collections, and also from the copyright division and the Congressional Research Service, to work together to articulate the Library’s vision.

Each one of the service units, which are the different high-level components of the Library, is using the digital strategy in their near- and long-term planning. And similarly, the Digital Strategy Office — my office — is taking a more facilitative role. So, we are going to focus in the next years on three main things. One is the strategy itself, so the digital strategy, making sure that’s current.

The other is culture — facilitating the continued development of an innovative culture here. That means bringing new ideas into the Library, hosting meetings, making sure that the innovation that’s happening in the broader community is threaded through into the Library.

And the third one is experimentation, and I think this is where we’ll be putting a lot of our resources. This is thinking about how we can responsibly try new things, so that we can make sure that we’re investing the resources of the Library wisely. An example that I’d like to share is we wanted to try something around crowdsourcing. The Library of Congress was really excited about the idea of using crowdsourcing to reach people where they are. I think it’s a really lovely way of showing people that they belong.

Accessibility was a big theme throughout this strategy. How do you ensure everyone is included when you go digital?

We are incredibly lucky to host here at the Library the National Library Service for the Blind and Visually Handicapped. That is a service by which any U.S. resident or U.S. citizen living abroad can access audiobooks or braille books at no cost. We have had a long history here at the Library of thinking about how people can access information regardless of their abilities. That has given us a huge advantage in terms of focus. In fact, they’re doing some really exciting things in thinking about how we can leverage technology to, for example, use voice interfaces to search their catalog. The crowdsourcing project I mentioned earlier and also optical character recognition give access to our historic collections to people who use screen readers in a way that I think is really exciting. We’re testing the accessibility of that right now.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face with digital transformation at the Library?

We’re the largest library on planet Earth. The scale of it is really kind of astronomical. Just to give you a number, we have 5.5 million paper maps in our building, and the stacks, when you walk through, go on for two football fields. So, thinking about how we could make our material maximally available to any American who could use it, it’s just an enormous challenge, and it’s also an opportunity. Another challenge is that we were one of the first libraries to the web. That means that we have a lot of systems and websites that have been made and now need to be rationalized into modern web applications and modern software.

How do you prioritize? With so much, how do you decide when to do what, and what should the focus be?

The Library has had a lot a practice in this. We’ve been digitizing for a long time. There is a working group that is made up of representatives from throughout Library services, which is the part of the Library that is responsible for collections and services. They review proposals, and what they focus on is material that is rare and unique to the Library. We focus on the personal papers of presidents, for example.

How is the Library embracing human-centered design?

There’s a team at the Library that leads the user experience work here. They are incredible, and they actually just wrapped up a project with the University of Maryland using human-centered design to think about how we might provide access to the Constitution Annotated. The Congressional Research Service here works with some of the most prominent lawyers in the country, and they annotate the Constitution with all the Supreme Court decisions that have referenced it. So, lawyers, scholars and others who are interested in seeing something can go look at it and see all the pertinent case law that has applied to those very cases. The students at the University of Maryland came up with a prototype for that material.

It sounds like there is a big focus on customer experience. Can you share updates?

We are almost complete with the effort to take what was hand-coded HTML pages with links to collections items and to put them into a modern framework. That has taken many years. Like I said, we were early adopters of the web, so it meant that we had a lot of material that needed to be transformed and much of it had to be done by hand. Now that that’s in a modern web framework, we can take advantage of things like responsive design and API access to our collection.

We launched our API maybe a year and a half ago. We find that people are using it both to analyze the collections but also to build applications on top of it. A researcher used the API to track the use of Bible quotes in historic newspapers over time, and in the experiment section of the website, you can see more examples of this. We’re exploring machine learning as a possible mechanism for processing our material and services here. We have a solicitation that just closed for a short machine learning experiment. We’re reviewing bids on that now, and we will be engaged in that research project at the end of this year.

What tips or talking points can you share that would be helpful for others embarking on this journey of digital transformation?

I think that making friends is probably the most important thing you can do in a role like this. Approach everything with empathy, and realize that big institutions like this don’t change on a dime and that’s OK. It is actually a huge strength that we are built to endure. Find ways that small changes can have exponential impact.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress Flickr

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