News & Politics

The Library of Congress Doesn’t Want to Pay Writers?

A well-known music critic takes the institution to task for soliciting unpaid work.

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith.

The Library of Congress recently reached out to prominent jazz critic Ted Gioia to see if he’d write an essay for them. The catch: They weren’t going to pay him anything. This didn’t sit right with Gioia, whose books include last year’s well-received How to Listen to Jazz. “No organization should pursue projects that rely on unpaid labor, and certainly not the Library of Congress,” Gioia tells Washingtonian. So he wrote a stern letter in response and posted a copy on his Facebook page. “[The Library of Congress] absolutely should not be asking anyone—least of all poor freelance writers—to do unpaid labor,” he wrote. “This is a matter of principle and taking a stand against exploitation as much as a matter of economics.”

The Library has been collecting essays to go along with each of the 500 recordings on the National Recording Registry. So far, more than 200 essays have been written. A large number of the short pieces are written by somebody who’s on staff, but there are also familiar outside writers who have participated, including former Washington Post critic Tim Page and Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout. “We tell people up front that we do not pay for the essays,” says Library of Congress spokesperson Bill Ryan. “We thank them for considering the request and fully understand if they say no. We offer our apologies if anyone was offended by the request and our thanks to those who have responded positively to it. We deeply appreciate the public-service commitment of the writers who have agreed to contribute their time to increasing public knowledge and appreciation of these national treasures.”

This actually isn’t the first time Gioia has called the Library out for soliciting unpaid labor. He says he got a similar request in 2014, which he mentioned in an article at the time. “You can imagine my surprise when the same thing happened again this week,” he says. “In fact, it was the exact same person making an almost identical request for free labor four years later. How sad!”

So why won’t the country’s leading institution devoted to the written word—which has a budget of more than $600 million—pay writers? “We simply don’t have the funds,” says Ryan.