The Library recently celebrated its accomplishments under the leadership of James H. Billington, who was sworn in as the 13th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 14, 1987. An all-staff reception to mark the 20th anniversary was held in the Great Hall of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building.
From the day he was inaugurated, Billington has never wavered from his vision for the Library and its future: to continue to acquire and preserve materials for the Library’s unmatched collections and to make them ever more readily available to Congress, the American people and the world—in his words, “to get the champagne out of the bottle.”
Over the years, he has remained true to his core objective: “making the riches of this place even more broadly available to ever wider circles of our multiethnic society,” as he phrased it at his swearing-in ceremony in 1987.
At the same time, he saw the need for the Library “to move in more deeply” to generate knowledge and distill wisdom from its unrivaled resources—the collections and the knowledgeable staff who could bring them to life. “This place has a destiny to be a living encyclopedia of democracy; not just a mausoleum of culture, but a catalyst for civilization,” he concluded in his swearing-in speech.
In a 1990 interview in the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette, on the eve of the digital revolution that was to transform communications, Billington discussed the urgency of using new information technologies to get Library content out to readers across the country and to transform internal processes so the Library could work more efficiently. If the Library did not do this, he warned, Congress would cease to support “a warehouse of information.”
In his enduring passion for the Library and its embodiment of Thomas Jefferson’s own library and the founders’ understanding that a free people could govern themselves only if they were informed, Billington eloquently communicated his vision for the Library’s future to the Congress, private benefactors and libraries around the world. He rallied their support for new policies, initiatives and programs that have established the 207-year-old Library as a lively, dynamic cultural institution that is responsive to the 21st-century needs of Congress and users around the globe.
When Billington took office two decades ago, the Library operated with a total budget of $235.4 million (including congressional authority to spend $12.1 million in receipts), 4,983 employees and 85.9 million items in the collections. Currently, the Library is operating with a total budget of $600.4 million (including authority to spend $42 million in receipts), 3,683 employees and 135 million items in the collections.
Support of the Congress
In 1800, Congress created the Library of Congress to support its research needs and thereby allow it to function as an informed independent branch of the federal government. Support for Congress’s research needs remains the Library’s principal purpose. Today, those requirements are met most directly by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an integral part of the Library, and the Law Library.
New initiatives actively supported by the Librarian as part of his vision for the institution included THOMAS, an online legislative database that maintains current information on bills, reports and public laws in one place on the Web. THOMAS was mandated by the leadership of the 104th Congress, and launched in January 1995.
In 1997, CRS launched the Legislative Information System (LIS), which provides accurate, timely access to congressional legislative information. The LIS home page is a portal to a variety of LIS databases, such as Bill Summary and Status, Bill Text, the Congressional Record and Committee Reports.
In 1991, the Law Library formed the Global Legal Information Network (GLIN), an online database of official texts of laws, regulations, judicial decisions, and other complementary legal sources (in their original languages, accompanied by a summary in English) contributed by government agencies and international organizations around the world.
Reaching Out More Broadly
Billington’s most far-reaching initiative was the National Digital Library (NDL), which began placing digital materials from the Library’s collections on the Web in 1995. Envisioned from the beginning as a public-private partnership, the Library’s first major digital effort gained Congress’s agreement to appropriate $15 million for the program over its first five years to match $45 million in private funds raised by the Library. By 2000, the Library had exceeded that goal by raising more than $48 million and digitizing more than five million items from its own and other institutions’ collections. Today there are more than 11 million items on the Library’s award-winning Web site, with specialized sites for children and families.
The NDL was the culmination of earlier efforts prompted by the Librarian, who recognized the potential of the emerging Internet and the importance of using it to get the unique collections of the Library out to a wider audience. He urged the creation in 1990 of a pilot program called American Memory, which digitized materials in the collections, put them on CD-ROMs and distributed them to 44 selected schools and libraries around the country. At the same time, the Library began to use the new technology to bring other resources to users remotely. In 1992, it began making selected images from its exhibitions available on the Internet, and in 1993 the Library’s enormous book catalog and other Library resources became available online to the public.
The Library continues to “reach out more broadly” with its National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, working with partners to collect and preserve digital content that would otherwise disappear. Speaking before the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in 2005, Billington proposed the World Digital Library, which is gathering an online collection of significant primary materials from cultures around the world.
Another major accomplishment of Billington’s tenure is his success in reaching out to the private sector to help support the Library’s goals. In 1987 he created the institution’s first Development Office, and in 1990 he formed the James Madison Council, whose members have raised $367 million for the Library’s programs. Those private funds enabled the Librarian to create the Kluge Center for Scholars in 2000, to award the first $1 million Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity in 2003, to support a number of major exhibitions at the Library, to acquire rare materials for the Library’s collections and to fund National Film Registry tours around the country.
Billington gave strong support to the creation of the National Film Preservation Board in 1988 and the National Recording Registry in 2000 to help ensure that these unique and fragile film and recorded sound resources are appreciated and preserved, and he was instrumental in bringing treasures from the Vatican Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and other world libraries to exhibit at the Library of Congress for the first time.
He also searched for a way to publish a national magazine about the Library of Congress, and Civilization magazine, published under a licensing agreement by an outside company from 1995 to 2000, was the result. Although it succeeded in reaching out to a national audience and bringing many of those subscribers into the Library for the first time, Civilization succumbed to the harsh competitive environment of magazine publishing.
An immensely popular outreach effort, the National Book Festival, co-sponsored by the Library and First Lady Laura Bush for the past seven years, has grown to more than 70 authors and illustrators and more than 120,000 visitors annually.
In the planning stages and scheduled to open in the Jefferson Building in 2008, and later to be joined by a new passageway into the U.S. Capitol, is a new interactive, educational visitors’ experience. Another Billington initiative, the visitors’ experience will help create connections between visitors and the Library’s collections that will spark lifelong learning.
Looking in More Deeply
Almost as soon as he took office in 1987, Billington convened a staff-led Management and Planning (MAP) Committee to conduct a one-year internal review of the Library’s functions. The result was a major administrative reorganization based on goals identified through the staff’s MAP study and articulation of a mission for the Library.
The creation of a staff newspaper was recommended by the MAP Committee, and on April 6, 1990, The Gazette was born. It has been published weekly ever since. In a letter to the staff in its first issue, Billington wrote, “With this first issue, The Gazette comes to life as the Library of Congress’s own community newspaper… I hope it will stir interest, stimulate good ideas, and promote general awareness of the contributions of so many good people to the progress of this great institution.”
The Librarian also requested an audit of the Library by the General Accounting Office (GAO), which found a number of deficiencies in its financial management system. Once the GAO audit report was complete, Billington took immediate action to correct those deficiencies. As a result, the Library now has a financial system in place that has received independent unqualified audit opinions since 1996.
Billington encouraged initiative among the staff, and he advocated diversity in the Library’s workforce. An Affirmative Action Intern Program initiated in 1990 offered training to staff in lower-graded jobs so they could compete for higher-graded administrative, technical or professional positions. A Junior Fellows Program (1991) and a Leadership Development Program (1995) were created with private funding. The Junior Fellows Program brings young people into the Library to examine the Library’s unprocessed collections to identify materials that might have been overlooked, and the one-year Leadership Development Program has given leadership training to a select group of Library staff members from diverse backgrounds.
When Billington arrived at the Library, the proportion of unprocessed collections was high, and he directed a special project team to take a census of unprocessed materials throughout the institution. That led to a report to Congress in 1990 recommending that arrearage reduction be made the highest priority, and the 1991 budget gave the Library 160 new positions for that purpose. Ten years later the arrearage of unprocessed materials had been reduced by more than 50 percent.
New, more efficient methods and practices of cataloging contributed to the reduction of the cataloging backlog. “Whole-book” cataloging replaced separate subject and descriptive cataloging processes, and the Library began to share the labor-intensive work of cataloging with other institutions through such programs as the Program for Cooperative Cataloging. Also, under Billington, for the first time, the Library embraced the practice of copy cataloging, which is the use of catalog records created by other institutions as the basis for its cataloging.
The Copyright Office recently took a similar approach in re-engineering internal business processes, using new technology to work more efficiently and to better protect American creativity through such public services as electronic registration of copyright claims.
Preservation of the Library’s vast and varied collections was another of Billington’s priorities. Experiments with the mass deacidification of books had been going on in the Library’s Preservation Directorate for a number of years, but it was not until a new diethyl zinc (DEZ) process was developed in the 1990s that it became practical to move forward. Congress agreed to a limited-production contract in 1995 and to a Library proposal in 2000 to establish mass deacidification as a permanent preservation program activity. By the end of fiscal 2006, the Library had deacidified more than 1.6 million books and nearly 4 million sheets of manuscript material.
Billington’s greatest accomplishment in the field of preservation was to garner congressional and private-sector support for construction of the Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Va. Congress authorized the project in 1997. The Packard Humanities Institute paid for construction valued at more than $150 million (constituting the largest private gift ever made to the Library), and Congress added $82.1 million to support operations, maintenance, equipment and related costs. The 45-acre site was officially turned over to the Library in August 2007. The facility allows 5.7 million of the Library’s moving image and recorded sound collections to be brought together in one place for the first time. The center enables the Library to transfer hundreds of thousands of hours of recorded sounds and moving images from their deteriorating analog sources to digital files that can be refreshed perpetually, migrated to new media over time, and maintained in a large-scale digital storage archive.
Meeting the Challenges of the Day
A Librarian of Congress must have not only the vision to look ahead but also the courage to deal with the challenges that confront him every day. Billington had to oversee the final stages of renovating the century-old Thomas Jefferson Building; provide for storage and preservation of expanding collections that were outgrowing space on Capitol Hill; and ensure the security and safety of the staff, buildings and collections.
Although plans for the renovation of the Jefferson Building were begun before Billington took office, he influenced the final designs of the reading rooms. Restored to its original glory, the Jefferson Building reopened in 1997 and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Washington. Three years later, the Library celebrated its bicentennial with Billington-inspired events, such as the reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s library and the presentation of Living Legend medals to artists, writers, public servants and others who have made significant contributions to America’s diverse cultural, scientific and social heritage.
When Billington took office in 1987, the Library buildings on Capitol Hill were running out of space for the collections. He obtained funding from Congress in 1993 to build the first of several planned high-density offsite storage-and-preservation facilities at Ft. Meade, Md., for less frequently used materials. Completed in 2002, the first module quickly filled with 1.6 million volumes. Opened in 2005, Module 2 is filling up at the rate of 3,000 books a day. Construction of the next two modules began last year.
Security of the collections became a critical problem in 1992, when Library staff discovered that significant materials housed in the traditionally open stacks of the Library had been stolen or mutilated.
Reluctantly but immediately, the Librarian ordered the stacks to be closed to everyone, including congressional and Library staff, except those who worked in them. He established a Collections Security Oversight Committee that continues to work on various measures to ensure that the Library’s invaluable collections are protected. Magnetic card readers are now used to access the book decks, and all readers must obtain free reader registration cards to access the reading rooms, where the use of materials is carefully monitored.
Sadly, the world is a different, more complicated place than it was in 1987. Not only did the Librarian have to secure the collections while insisting that the Library continue to be open to visitors and scholars, but he had to ensure the safety of staff, visitors and buildings following the Gulf War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Billington has overseen these changes, including entrance inspections with X-ray scanning machines and exit inspections with theft-detection devices; the rerouting of incoming mail through an offsite postal inspection station; the planning and drilling for terrorist attacks and other emergencies; and the improvement of emergency communications.
The Billington Legacy
Thanks to the efforts of James Billington, the Library of Congress has entered the 21st century as a dynamic, forward-thinking cultural institution that cherishes its heritage as the nation’s memory-keeper and igniter of imagination and creativity. As the June/July 2007 issue of American Libraries notes, “He [Billington] has built his legacy on the inherited challenges he has addressed and the opportunities he has exploited.”
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) read the following tribute to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington into the Senate record on the Senate floor, Sept. 10. The statement was presented to the Librarian on Sept. 14:
“Mr. President, an important anniversary will be marked on September 14, at the Library of Congress. Twenty years ago, in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, then-President Reagan presided over the swearing-in of Dr. James H. Billington as the 13th Librarian of Congress.
“When he was appointed, Dr. Billington brought great expertise to the Library, both as the world’s premier scholar of Russian culture and history and as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His vision, and the hard work of so many dedicated Library staff members, has led to continued growth of the Library of Congress. He has fulfilled the promise made on September 14, 1987—to make the riches of the Library more broadly available to ever widening circles of our society.
“At the time, Senator Wendell Ford remarked that the Library of Congress ‘represents our nation’s commitment to a knowledgeable citizenry.’ Dr. Billington has upheld that commitment by enhancing the Library and making its riches and inspiration available to all Americans. Under his leadership, the Copyright Office, the Law Library, the Congressional Research Service and the National Library have seamlessly worked together to build the collections and preserve them for future generations.
“The Library’s accomplishments of the last two decades are extraordinary. The collections have expanded by 50 million items, and state-of-the art facilities have been built to ensure their long-term preservation. The establishment of the Kluge Center for Scholars and the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Human Sciences have enriched not only the scholarly life of Washington but also have enabled members of Congress to meet thought leaders and benefit from their perspectives. Also, the Library was a pioneer in online collections and services, launching American Memory, THOMAS, the World Digital Library and resources for teachers, students and families across the nation and world.
“The Library’s pioneering work in education has had a great impact in my home state of Illinois. The Library’s educational mission, shaped by Dr. Billington’s vision, is that young people benefit from learning with primary sources such as Lincoln’s magnificent Gettysburg Address, seeing the Founding Fathers’ notes and revisions to the Bill of Rights, and exploring maps and sound recordings to understand history and culture firsthand. As the Library developed and focused its massive resources in ways that teachers could explore and use for their classrooms, Dr. Billington recognized the profound impact of incorporating primary sources into teacher education. Many of us in Congress recognized the potential around this idea and helped create and fund the Adventures of the American Mind, which is now poised to become a national program—Teaching with Primary Sources. The 10 universities in Illinois that have benefited from working with the Library have transformed their teacher education programs. I have seen firsthand the programs and curricula that have been created using the amazing resources from Congress’s Library to improve teaching in our nation’s schools.
“Dr. Billington’s energy is unflagging. He has led efforts to launch the World Digital Library, the reinstallation of Thomas Jefferson’s Library in the Jefferson Building and the Library’s celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial in 2009 and beyond. In short, I have valued and look forward to continuing leadership from Dr. Billington. He and his colleagues at the Library of Congress are a tremendous resource to our work as a legislature.
“The Library of Congress has benefited immeasurably from the first 20 years of Jim Billington’s leadership. We are grateful to him and congratulate him, his wife Marjorie and his family on this milestone of service to our nation.”