January 27, 2022

James H. Billington, Long-Reigning Librarian of Congress, Dies at 89

From The Washington Post:

James H. Billington, an eminent American scholar of Russian culture who reigned for three decades as librarian of Congress, propelling the expansion of the world’s largest library but struggling to lead it into the digital age, died Nov. 20 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.


In 1966, Dr. Billington published a landmark book on Russian culture, “The Icon and the Axe,” that secured his reputation in academia. During the Cold War, the Los Angeles Times reported, Reagan administration officials relied on his expertise in Russian — a language he learned as a teenager when he tackled Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in the original. A White House speechwriter recalled sprinkling Reagan’s addresses with Russian phrases provided by the librarian of Congress, and not lost on the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the library, Dr. Billington found himself at the helm of a $600 million annual budget and more than 3,000 employees. Within his purview were the library’s holdings — including 838 miles of bookshelves and a seemingly unfathomable trove of manuscripts, photographs, maps and recordings — and departments as varied as the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Copyright Office and the American Folklife Center.


But in the twilight of his career, the perquisites of his fundraising activities drew unflattering attention for their appearance of regalness and exclusivity. Bitter grievances emerged about his style, which was described as imperious and condescending, and government auditors at the end of his tenure found a library in technological and physical disarray.

In June 2015, after 28 years in the job, Dr. Billington announced that he would retire on Jan. 1, 2016, at 86. He ultimately accelerated his departure, stepping down at the end of September amid criticism that he had overstayed his welcome in what is essentially a lifetime appointment.

Read the Complete Washington Post Obit (approx. 2000 words)

UPDATE: Official Library of Congress Statement from Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden

“Our hearts are heavy as we learn of the passing of Dr. James Billington, the 13th Librarian of Congress,” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said. “Dr. Billington has left an indelible legacy on the institution he led passionately for 28 years. With his vigor for philanthropy and tireless efforts to expand the reach and impact of the Library, he achieved so much to advance the Library of Congress as an enduring place for scholars and learners. He will be remembered as a visionary leader, distinguished academic and, most of all, a great American. On behalf of the Library of Congress staff and its many users, we salute this great public servant. My prayers and thoughts are with his wife Marjorie and his family. We offer our heartfelt condolences and support especially on this Thanksgiving holiday.”

During his 28-year tenure at the Library of Congress, Billington doubled the size of the Library’s traditional analog collections, from 85.5 million items in 1987 to more than 160 million items. Simultaneously, he created a massive new Library of Congress online, and launched a series of innovative programs to “get the champagne out of the bottle” for millions of Americans and the world.

Billington acquired the only copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map (“America’s birth certificate”) in 2003 for permanent display in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. He reconstructed Thomas Jefferson’s original library and also placed it on permanent display in the Jefferson Building in 2008 using privately raised funds. He obtained a complete copy of Lafayette’s previously inaccessible papers from the Lafayette family’s castle at LaGrange, France, as well as hundreds of other collections of great Americans ranging from Thurgood Marshall to Irving Berlin and Jackie Robinson.

Billington also successfully advocated for an underground connection between the Library and the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in 2008, which has greatly increased usage and tours of the Library of Congress.

He raised half a billion dollars in private support including the largest ever private gift to the Library to open the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper,Virginia.

See Also: James Billington: 13th Librarian of Congress (via LOC)
Official LC biography.

See Also: Selected Works by James Billington (via LOC)

Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, Will Retire Next Week, Three Months Earlier Than Originally Announced (September 25, 2015)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.