Conklin checks in as CIO at the world’s largest library
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Sep 14, 2021
Technology looked a little different when Judith Conklin took the job of telecommunications manager at the Library of Congress in 1997. On Sept. 12, she will become the CIO of the world’s largest library, where she has built a career working in both IT and the business operations sides.
She served as deputy CIO since 2015 and worked with former CIO Bernard A. Barton, Jr. to centralize Library technology activities, create an agencywide digital strategy and optimize and modernize the Library’s IT infrastructure and critical IT business systems. She is also a 2020 Federal 100 winner, recognized for bolstering IT security monitoring, addressing vulnerabilities of legacy systems and creating a layered risk management approach.
Some would say enterprise technology is a far cry from her other passion -- skydiving -- but she says it’s not so different really. “I enjoy the thrill. I think people who go into IT have to enjoy the thrill because it’s a fast-paced career field,” said Conklin, who has done a couple thousand jumps and is certified as a Federal Aviation Administration senior parachute rigger.
GCN spoke with her to find out what she’s tackling in her latest adventure.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
GCN: Last time we spoke was mid-March 2020 and you were amid an IT transformation, including going from an on-premises data center to a three-part hosting environment. How did that set you up for the library’s pandemic response?
Conklin: When the pandemic hit, we had already built the network up, increased the network, expanded it to the internet service provider, which affects access to our virtual-private network, so that was helpful. We were in a good position, but we did have some challenges. We did not have all of the Library of Congress staff teleworking, and they were on PC towers vs. laptops onsite. So like a lot of agencies, when things shut down, we put in an emergency order to purchase more laptops. The ones we did have in stock, we were able to get out quickly, and the agency prioritized who should have them. Then when the others were delivered, we built those out. All in all, we issued 1,600 emergency laptops to get our now-remote workforce up and operational. That was very successful. It just didn’t happen in a week.
What lessons have you learned from the past 18 months will inform how you approach the CIO job?
I have a disaster recovery background. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve done it throughout my career. As the new CIO, one of my goals and intentions is to continue to enhance the remote workforce offerings. Good continuity of operations practices call for more than one way to do anything, so more than one way to access that VPN. Our COOP plans did have a pandemic part, but the pandemic COOP plans included who would need to work during a pandemic. It was a little more than the essential personnel. It wasn’t the whole staff, and that will forever be changed. Everybody will always say, “How can I get as many positions as possible the capability to work remotely?”
For us on Capitol Hill, there is another aspect to provide support. We’ve had several emergencies during the last year that don’t have to do with the pandemic, and so moving into the CIO job, there are several items I intend to improve. The Jan. 6 incident at the Capitol and another emergency on Aug. 19 in front of the Jefferson Building, when a man threatened to have a bomb, begs the question, how does that pertain to IT or technology. In a couple ways it does. We do have emergency systems that need to be upgraded. We have an in-building wireless system that was built starting in 2002 and that needs to be upgraded. The events of Jan. 6 shows us that cellular service connectivity within our buildings is needed during emergencies. With the cellular companies upgrading their services, our in-building wireless system needs to be upgraded to coincide with, for instance, 5G.
What else is on your to-do list as CIO?
I’ve actually been at the library for 24 and a half years, so how I attack my first 100 days as CIO will be different than if it was an outside CIO coming in. I’ll continue a lot of the efforts we started. Some of them include building out an Enterprise Copyright System. We’ve already begun that and that’s going very well. We also have a large development for the Congressional Research Service to replace their applications. One effort that hasn’t begun is upgrading the Library of Congress website’s catalog. People around the world use that catalog, and it’s in sore need of upgrading and replacement, and so we’ve asked for funding from Congress. My vision is to begin that development as quickly as possible.
What are you most looking forward to about your new role?
I’m very much looking forward to these new systems going into place. It’s phenomenal the look and feel, for instance, of the copyright systems going into place. I think the copyright community will be very excited to see it. We’re doing it in an agile manner, and users are able to see the progress we’re making, and we’ve heard encouraging things about what they’re seeing. I’m excited to move from iron to cloud as much as possible and get out of the hardware business.
What’s your favorite thing about the Library?
I would have to say it’s the people. People come here and they never leave. We just had an employee in OCIO hit 50 years of service, and that’s not abnormal at the Library of Congress. These people fall in love with the mission, they fall in love with what the library does and they want to bring it further. It’s exciting to work with these people. These people are the best in their fields.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.