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Biography Daniel J. Boorstin (1914-2004)

12th Librarian of Congress 1975-1987

Daniel J. Boorstin

Daniel  J. Boorstin, the twelfth Librarian of Congress, was born in Atlanta, Georgia on October 1, 1914.  He was one of the two sons of Samuel Aaron Boorstin, a lawyer, and of Dora (Olsan) Boorstin.  His grandparents on both sides of his family were Russian-Jewish immigrants.  He grew up and attended public schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  After graduating from Tulsa Central High School in 1930, he entered Harvard College, which awarded him the bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in 1934.  As a Rhodes Scholar from Oklahoma, in 1934, he entered Balliol College, Oxford, from which he received his B.A. in Jurisprudence (first class honors) in 1936 and his Bachelor of Civil Laws (first class honors) in 1937.  Simultaneously, he was enrolled as a student at the Inner Temple, London, and passed the English bar examinations.  He became a Barrister-at-Law in 1937.

Boorstin returned to the United States in 1937 as a Sterling Fellow at Yale University Law School, where he worked toward a doctor of judicial science degree, which was awarded in 1940. From 1938 to 1942, he was an instructor on the faculty of Harvard University, where he taught English and American history and literature, and also legal history at the Harvard Law School.  His first book, The Mysterious Science of the Law, was published by Harvard University Press in 1941.  He was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1942.

While teaching at the Harvard Law School, he met his future wife, Ruth Frankel, the sister of a legal assistant who worked for him.  They were married in 1941 and she became his most trusted editor and the mother of their three sons, Paul, Jon, and David.

After a brief tour as a lawyer with the Lend-Lease administration, Boorstin joined the faculty of Swarthmore College.  In 1944 he left Swarthmore for the University of Chicago, working as one of a group of teachers under president Robert M. Hutchins to establish an interdisciplinary program in the social sciences.  He rose rapidly through the ranks of the history department, becoming a full professor in 1956.  In 1966, he was appointed to an endowed chair, the Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of History.

In 1969, after a distinguished and productive 25-year academic career and many honors in the United States and abroad, Boorstin left the University of Chicago to become director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology (today known as the National Museum of American History).  Focusing on the Smithsonian’s participation in the forthcoming U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, he brought new intellectual energy to the institution, along with exhibitions such as “A Nation of Nations” that provided a new, broad social context for a new generation of Smithsonian exhibitions. He stepped down as director in 1973 to become Senior Historian.

On June 30, 1975, President Gerald R. Ford nominated Boorstin to be Librarian of Congress.  The Senate hearings on the nomination lasted three days.  Opposition from the American Library Association echoed the association’s opposition to the nomination of Archibald MacLeish to be Librarian of Congress in 1939: Boorstin’s background, “however distinguished it may be, does not include demonstrated leadership and administrative qualities which constitute basic and essential characteristics necessary in the Librarian of Congress.” The nomination was strongly supported, however, by a bipartisan group of congressmen including Senators Mark O. Hatfield, Adlai E. Stevenson, and Charles H. Percy; and Representatives Carl Albert, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and John J. Rhodes, Minority Leader of the House of Representatives.  Thus in 1975, as in 1939, the Congress readily accepted the nomination of an author and in this case a historian, to head the Library.  Confirmation occurred, without debate, on September 26, 1975, and on November 12, 1975, Daniel J. Boorstin took the oath of office as the twelfth Librarian of Congress.

For the first time in the Library’s history, the new Librarian took the oath of office at a formal ceremony in the Library. Held in the Jefferson Building’s Great Hall, the occasion symbolized what was to be a hallmark of the Boorstin administration: public emphasis on the institution’s dual role as both a legislative and a national institution.  The ceremony’s participants included national leaders from both the legislative and the executive branches of government, including President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, and Speaker of the House Carl Albert, who administered the oath of office.  Representative Lucien N. Nedzi, chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, presided.  In introducing President Ford, Nedzi commented on the Library’s dual role: “As its name reveals, the Library is the Library of Congress—a fact in which the Congress of the United States takes great pride—and, of equal importance, if not more so, it is a national library that serves all of the people of the United States.”

One of Boorstin’s first official acts was to create, on January 16, 1976, a staff Task Force on Goals, Organization, and Planning, which was charged with the responsibility of carrying out “a full-scale review of the Library and its activities.”  The Task Force effort was supplemented by advice from eight outside advisory groups, each representing one of the Library’s principal outside constituencies.

Boorstin established greater public visibility for the Library, more systematic interaction between the Library and the world of scholarship and learning, and developed programs and administrative structures that formalized these relationships.  The year-long study of the Library by the staff Task Force on Goals, Organization, and Planning and its outside advisory groups helped create and sustain new relationships, and the Task Force reports were the basis for an administrative reorganization of the Library in 1978.

Among his early personal initiatives, Boorstin obtained Congressional approval in 1976 of the American Folklife Center and the following year of the Center for the Book, which was established “to keep the book flourishing” by stimulating public interest in books, reading, and the printed word.  The next year, the Library opened the Performing Arts Library at the Kennedy Center, a joint project of the two organizations.  In 1980, Boorstin established a Council of Scholars, a link between the Library and the world of scholarship. Both the Center for the Book and the Council of Scholars were supported primarily by private donations.

A highlight of the Boorstin administration was the occupancy of the new James Madison Memorial Building in 1980; when it opened,  it was the largest library building in the world.  In collaboration with Architect of the Capitol George M. White, Boorstin also initiated legislation, approved in 1984, that eventually led to the renovation and restoration of the Library’s two older structures, the Jefferson and Adams Buildings.  The Mary Pickford Theatre in the Madison Building, opened in 1983, greatly enhanced public access to the Library’s unparalleled motion picture collections.

As Librarian of Congress, Boorstin fought hard and publicly for the Library’s appropriation, even curtailing evening and Sunday opening hours in response to budget cuts.  During his administration, the Library’s annual appropriation increased from $116 to $250 million.  As Librarian of Congress, he took special interest in library preservation problems and in the development of the collections, which he dubbed “a multi-media encyclopedia.”

Boorstin saw one of his principal roles as Librarian “to be a catalyst, an avenue between the world of ideas and what goes on at the Library.”  His success in this role was widely acknowledged.  On December 10, 1986, he announced that he would leave his position as Librarian of Congress on June 15, 1987, “in order to devote more time to writing and lecturing.”  The New York Times, noted that he had made the position of Librarian of Congress “perhaps the leading public intellectual position in the nation.”

On April 17, 1987, President Ronald Reagan announced his intention to nominate James H. Billington as Boorstin’s successor.  On July 21, just three days before Billington’s confirmation, the House of Representatives approved a bill designating Boorstin as Librarian of Congress Emeritus.  The Senate concurred to the House amendment on July 22 and it was signed into law (Public Law 100-83) by President Reagan on August 4, 1987.  Boorstin’s only predecessor as Librarian of Congress Emeritus was Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress from 1899-1939, who served as Librarian Emeritus from 1939 until his death in 1955.

Throughout his career, Boorstin was a prolific author. He continued his work as an historian while Librarian of Congress, carefully pointing out that his research and writing took place in the morning at home—and not at the Library. His books include the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958), which won the Bancroft Prize; The Americans: The National Experience (1965), which won the Parkman Prize; and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Genius of American Politics (1953); The Image (1962); and his world history trilogy: The Discoverers (1983), The Creators (1992), and The Seekers (1998).

Daniel Boorstin died on Feb. 28, 2004; he was 89 years old. His successor as Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, eulogized him as “a great American,” a key figure “in the coming of age of our Nation’s Capital,” and “a matchless chronicler of the uniqueness, the innovative spirit and the everyday practicality of our shared American experience.”


Cole, John Y., ed. The Republic of Letters: Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin on Books, Reading, and Libraries, 1975-1987. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.

Leonard, Angela Michele, ed.  Daniel J. Boorstin: A Comprehensive and Selectively Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Nomination of Daniel J. Boorstin of the District of Columbia to be Librarian of Congress. Hearings before the Committee on Rules and Administration, U.S. Senate. July 30 and 21 and Sept. 10, 1975. Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress