By AUDREY FISCHER
C-SPAN founder and CEO Brian Lamb interviewed Librarian of Congress James H. Billington on June 25 about the challenges and accomplishments during his 20-year tenure. The interview, which was taped before a live audience in the Library's Coolidge Auditorium, aired on C-SPAN's "Q and A" at 8 and 11 p.m. on Sunday, July 1.
During the one-hour conversation, Billington spoke passionately about the institution he has served with unflagging energy and enthusiasm for nearly two decades.
"It is a temple of knowledge," Billington said. "Historian John Hope Franklin, who recently received the John W. Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity, [calls it] 'the eighth wonder of the world.'"
"Why do you keep doing this at an advanced age?" asked Lamb.
"It's a fascinating job," Billington replied. "I am a scholar at heart. I learn something new every day—about life and about people, especially through a diverse staff with all types of talents."
Lamb inquired about the future of librarianship. Turning to the audience, composed mainly of librarians attending the annual conference of the American Library Association, Billington underscored the need for talented librarians and teachers to serve as "knowledge navigators" in an increasingly digital world. "Every community needs a human intermediary between the world of books and this exploding amount of information," he said. "Librarians are more important now rather than less."
A strong advocate for using digital technology to increase access to the Library's collections, Billington sees the Internet as a way to bring people back into reading by whetting their appetite to seek more information in books: "My predecessor [historian Daniel Boorstin] said that you can get all the information you want electronically, but it won't help you reach the unimagined question or the unwelcome answer. For that, you have to go to books."
"Does the Library have every book?" asked Lamb, posing a frequently asked question.
"Not every book but more than anywhere else," Billington responded. He explained that as the home of the Copyright Office since 1870, the Library houses "the mint record of American creativity." He also noted that for the third year, summer interns are being given the opportunity to search through these records to uncover hidden treasures, such as Cole Porter's first musical and an unpublished play script by Zora Neale Hurston that found its way from a box on a shelf to the stage.
When asked by Lamb about a recent trip to Russia and China, Billington took the opportunity to discuss several of the Library's international initiatives. The trip was planned in part to celebrate the Billingtons' 50th wedding anniversary and to coincide with the 200th anniversary of U.S.-Russia diplomatic relations.
Billington, a Russian scholar, believes that the free and open access to knowledge that libraries provide is the very essence of democracy. It was precisely this access to information that he hoped would be demonstrated to participants in the Open World program (formerly the Russian Leadership Program), which he spearheaded in 1999 with congressional support. He reported that since its inception, the Open World program has brought 11,000 emerging political leaders from throughout the Russian Federation to the United States to experience family, cultural and political life in America.
Billington noted that the concept of a World Digital Library was inspired by the Meeting of Frontiers project, a bilingual Web presentation about the parallel exploration and settlement of Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the meeting of the Russian-American frontier in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The site was built by the Library in collaboration with the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, the Russian State Library, the National Library of Russia and more than 20 libraries, archives and museums in cities in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Six national libraries are now participating in the World Digital Library, and 30 more have expressed interest in joining the effort.
Billington introduced the concept in a speech before the newly established U.S. National Commission for UNESCO on June 6, 2005, at Georgetown University. The World Digital Library project seeks to replicate the Library's successful American Memory project by collaboratively digitizing primary-source materials pertaining to the world's cultures and making them available online.
"The World Digital Library is a virtual story," he observed. "People love other people's stories. Theories divide people, but stories unite people."
Lamb gave the Librarian an opportunity to tell his own story by asking him to recall his reaction to being approached with the possibility of being appointed Librarian of Congress.
"There have been only 13 Librarians of Congress since 1800, so it wasn't something I thought about, although I used the Library a lot for my research," Billington said.
When his nomination by the White House was first publicized, he was asked what his biggest challenge might be. He replied, "To bring out the music that is already there." Stated simply, this concept of making the Library's unparalleled resources accessible has been his mission throughout his tenure.
"Acquiring, preserving and making the collections accessible is not very glamorous, but it's important for our children," he said. "The Library serves everyone, but it's taken for granted that it will always be here." Recalling the specter of the Library of Alexandria, once the world's largest library before its destruction by fire, he made a case for vigilant care and support of the Library.
Billington cited the support of Congress in carrying out the Library's missions. "The Congress of the United States is the greatest single patron of libraries in the world," he said, noting that the Continental Congress met in a library and Congress constituted its own library as one of its first official acts. The first congressional committee to be established was the Joint Committee on the Library.
"Do you have what you need?" asked Lamb, referring to the Library's annual budget of approximately $600 million.
"You always need more than you get," replied Billington, "especially with an ambitious agenda."
Throughout the interview, Billington peppered his responses with mentions of the many initiatives currently under way, such as the creation of a national audio-visual conservation center in Culpeper, Va., the Veterans History Project and plans for a new visitor experience next year.
He noted that the number of visitors is projected to increase from 1.4 million to 3.5 million with the opening of a new passageway connecting the Capitol Visitor Center to the Thomas Jefferson Building. With a theme of "bringing knowledge to life," the enhanced visitor experience will use technology to acquaint visitors with the Library's collections and the architecture and iconography of the magnificent Jefferson Building.
With so much on his agenda, Billington was asked about retirement. "The Lord has favored me with good health and undiminished vitality," he said. "I have no immediate plans to retire."