Martha Anderson and Bill Lefurgy contributed to this story.
Twenty years ago, Dr. James Billington hired Laura Campbell to join the Library of Congress as director of Library Distribution Services. Through Campbell’s previous consultation work with the Library, he recognized her great talent.
“I was impressed by the organization and precision in the reports she gave,” said Dr. Billington. But Campbell proved to be much more than organized and precise. She turned out to be an important leader and innovator for the Library. Her vision would lead to crucial partnerships that would help steer the Library into the digital age. Having achieved this critical objective, Campbell is letting go of the reins and retiring.
Campbell’s professional background is in accounting and management, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s her strategic planning work as a consultant brought her to the Library. “She seemed both good at numbers and enthused about the mission of the Library,” said Dr. Billington.
Campbell was hired in 1992, three years after the launch of the American Memory pilot project. The pilot project ended in 1994 at the same time that the browser-based commercial Internet began transforming the world. The American Memory collections, which up until then had been distributed on video discs, now had a new, far-reaching method of distribution through web browsers. Around the same time Campbell became the director of the National Digital Library Program.
As the NDLP made collections available online, the Library was widely recognized and praised for its groundbreaking work in making valuable cultural content available to everyone over what was then called the “information superhighway.” In a 1997 interview with The New York Times, Campbell said “We think we are proving that the Internet can have serious content and that people will use it.”
Working with private and commercial donors is one of the essential business skills that Campbell brought to the Library. Her efforts in this area supported groundbreaking digital research and development. Another talent that Campbell displayed is big-picture thinking. She had an ability to help others envision the potential impacts of the Library’s work, and her skills as a strategic thinker made her a change agent for the institution.
In 2000 Campbell became the Associate Librarian for Strategic Initiatives, the same year that congress chartered the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. She was responsible for the overall strategic initiative planning for the Library, which included development of a national strategy — in cooperation with other institutions — for the collection, access and preservation of digital materials. Campbell’s view of NDIIPP was always based on collaboration, and she focused on building a well-reasoned, broad-based infrastructure for digital preservation. Her philosophy at the dawn of NDIIPP was to broadly engage with all the communities with a stake in digital preservation and to position the Library as a catalyst for change.
From the beginning of Campbell’s tenure at the Library she formed relationships with a variety of digital technologists and thought leaders worldwide – a diverse network from state and local government, the commercial sector, the creative community and beyond. Part of Campbell’s challenge as an innovator was to generate a call for action to meet the digital challenges of the 21st century. She always pushed for collaborative solutions, insisting that no one institution can do it alone.
Campbell has a knack for selecting and surrounding herself with talented people and allowing them to develop innovative ideas. Campbell is technologically astute and well-informed, and she keeps up with the latest developments. Despite her monumental responsibilities and her role as a decision maker, she is described by colleagues as “immensely charming,” “an amazing storyteller,” and “someone you would definitively want to have dinner with.”
Campbell leaves all this behind to seek new challenges. Her accomplishments on behalf of the Library and of the larger culture will long remain a testament to her vision and leadership.
For her part, Campbell leaves with fond memories of her time at the Library and of individuals who worked with her. “I’d like to thank all of the amazing people who helped shape this national preservation program and who contributed so much to the advancement of knowledge that otherwise would be lost to mankind,” she said. “It took many, many smart people – whether they were on our boards or they’re part of the partner network or both. They should be very proud of what they’ve done and I’m grateful to them.”