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Biography James H. Billington (1929-2018)

13th Librarian of Congress 1987-2015

James H. Billington

James Hadley Billington was sworn in as the Librarian of Congress on September 14, 1987. He is the 13th person to hold the position since the Library was established in 1800. Billington was nominated by President Ronald Reagan, and his appointment was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate.

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 Library 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 enlarged and technologically enhanced public spaces in the Thomas Jefferson Building into a national exhibition venue, hosting over 100 exhibitions, numerous featuring materials not previously displayed publicly in America. These included large-scale exhibits on the Vatican Library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln, African-American culture, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and early American printing featuring the Rubenstein Bay Psalm Book. Jay Kislak’s donation of his magnificent collection on the history and culture of the Early Americas is now on permanent display in the Jefferson building. Billington also advocated successfully for an underground connection between the Library and the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in 2008, which has greatly increased congressional usage and public tours of the Library of Congress.

Billington launched a mass deacidification program in 2001, which has extended the lifespan of almost 4 million volumes and 12 million manuscript sheets. He opened new collection storage modules at Fort Meade, the first in 2002, to preserve and make accessible more than 4 million items from the Library’s analog collections. He also established the Library Collections Security Oversight Committee in 1992 to improve protection of collections, and also the Library of Congress Congressional Caucus in 2008 to draw attention to the Library’s curators and collections.

Billington raised half a billion dollars in private support from such major donors as John Kluge, Jay Kislak and David Packard to supplement Congressional appropriations for Library collections, programs, and digital outreach. He created the Library’s first development office for private fundraising in 1987, and, in 1990, established the James Madison Council, the Library’s first national private-sector donor support group. Billington asked the GAO to conduct the first Library-wide audit in 1987. He then created a new financial management system for the Library and instituted regular annual outside financial audits, which produced unmodified (“clean”) opinions from 1995 onwards. He also created the first Office of the Inspector General at the Library in 1987 to provide regular independent review of library operations.

During his 28-year tenure at the Library of Congress, Billington pioneered a range of no-fee electronic services, including the following:

  • American Memory in 1990, which became The National Digital Library, providing free access online to digitized American historic and cultural resources with curatorial explanations for K-12 education;
  •, a website to provide state-of-the-art services for both Congress and the public in 2012, which superseded the website launched in 1994 to provide free public access to U.S. federal legislative information with ongoing updates;
  • Educational portal for K-12 teachers and students in 1996, and subsequently new prizes and programs for advancing literacy in 2013;
  • eCo online copyright registration, including status-checking, processing, and electronic file upload systems in 2008;
  • The World Digital Library in 2009, in association with the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) and now with 181 partners in 81 countries, to make online copies of professionally curated primary materials of the world’s varied cultures freely available in multiple languages;
  • Resource Description and Access (RDA) in 2010, a new cataloging standard for the digital age implemented in 2013;
  • BIBFRAME in 2011, a data model for bibliographic description to provide a foundation for those depending on bibliographic data shared by the Library with partners on the web and in the broader networked world;
  • National Jukebox in 2011 to provide streaming free online access to more than 10,000 out-of-print music and spoken-word recordings;
  • BARD in 2013, a digital talking books mobile app through the Library’s National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped enabling free downloads of audio and Braille books to mobile devices;
  • A social media presence for the Library since 2007 which today includes 14 blogs, Flickr, establishment of Flickr Commons, Facebook, iTunesU, Pinterest, RSS, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Twitter donated its digital archive to the Library of Congress in 2010.

Billington also established the following programs at the Library of Congress:

  • The National Book Festival, founded in 2000 with Laura Bush, which has brought more than 1000 authors and more than a million guests to the National Mall and the Washington Convention Center;
  • A major gift from David Rubenstein has enabled the Library to establish major new Literacy Awards to recognize and support achievements in improving literacy in the U.S. and abroad;
  • The John W. Kluge Center, started in 2000 with a grant of $60 million from John W. Kluge, has brought outstanding scholars to work at the Library and to interact with Congress and other public leaders through endowed Kluge fellowships;
  • The Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity, the first Nobel-level international prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences (subjects not included in the Nobel awards);
  • The Audio-Visual Conservation Center, which opened in 2007 at a 45-acre site in Culpeper, Virginia thanks to the largest private gift ever made to the Library (more than $150 million by the Packard Humanities Institute) and $82.1 million in additional support from Congress;
  • The National Film Preservation Board, congressionally mandated in 1988, to select American films for preservation and inclusion in a National Film Registry (Billington has added 650 films to the registry to date);
  • The Veterans History Project, congressionally mandated in 2000 to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans from World War I to the present day;
  • The National Recording Preservation Board, congressionally mandated in 2000, to select sound recordings for preservation and inclusion in a National Recording Registry (Billington has named 425 recordings to date);
  • The Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2007 to honor the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in song composition. Winners have included Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Carole King, Billy Joel, and just-named Willie Nelson, who will receive the Prize in November 2015;
  • The Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2008 to recognize distinguished lifetime achievement by an American writer of fiction;
  • The Young Readers Center in the Jefferson Building in 2009;
  • The Junior Fellows Summer Intern program for university students in 1991;
  • Gateway to Knowledge in 2010-2011, a mobile exhibition to 90 sites covering all states east of the Mississippi in a specially designed 18-wheel truck, increasing public access to Library collections off-site, particularly for rural populations.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on June 1, 1929, Dr. Billington was educated in the public schools of the Philadelphia area. He was class valedictorian at both Lower Merion High School and Princeton University, from which he graduated with highest honors in 1950. Three years later he earned his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College and student of the philospher and historian, Isaiah Berlin. Following service with the U.S. Army and in the Office of National Estimates, Billington taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 and subsequently at Princeton University from 1964 to 1973.

From 1973 to 1987, Billington was director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the nation’s official memorial in Washington to America’s 28th president. As director, he founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Center and seven other new programs as well as the Wilson Quarterly.

Billington is the author of “Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism” (1956), “The Icon and the Axe” (1966), “Fire in the Minds of Men” (1980), “Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, August 1991” (1992), “The Face of Russia” (1998)—a companion book to a television series of the same name, which he wrote and narrated for the Public Broadcasting Service—and “Russia in Search of Itself” (2004). These books have been translated and published in a variety of languages. Billington has accompanied 10 congressional delegations to Russia and the former Soviet Union. In June 1988 he accompanied President and Mrs. Reagan to the Soviet Summit in Moscow. He is the founding chairman of the Board of Trustees (1999-2011) of the Open World Leadership Center, a nonpartisan initiative of the U.S. Congress, which has administered 24,000 professional exchanges for emerging post-Soviet leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and seven other successor states of the former USSR to visit counterparts in the United States. Open World began as a Library of Congress project, and later became an independent agency in the legislative branch.

In October 2004, Billington headed a Library of Congress delegation to Tehran, Iran, that significantly expanded exchanges between the Library of Congress and the National Library of Iran. Dr. Billington was then the most senior U.S. government official to openly visit Iran in 25 years.

Billington has received more than 40 honorary doctorates, including from the University of Tbilisi in Georgia (1999), the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (2001), and the University of Oxford (2002). He also has been awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University (1992), the UCLA Medal (1999), the Pushkin Medal of the International Association of the Teachers of Russian Language and Culture (2000), the Karamzin Prize (2005) from the Foreign Literature Library in Moscow, and the Likhachev Prize (2006) from the Likhachev Foundation in St. Petersburg. In 2007, Dr. Billington was awarded the inaugural Lafayette Prize by the French-American Cultural Foundation and the EastWest Institute Outstanding Leadership Award. Dr. Billington was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bush in 2008.

Billington is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has been decorated as Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the President of France and as Commander of the National Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil. He has been awarded the Order of Merit of Italy, a Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany, the Gwanghwa Medal by the Republic of Korea, and the Chingiz Aitmatov Gold Medal by the Kyrgyz Republic. In 2008, Dr. Billington was awarded the Order of Friendship by the President of the Russian Federation; the highest state order that a foreign citizen may receive.

Billington was a longtime member of the editorial advisory boards of Foreign Affairs and Theology Today, and a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (1971-76)—as well as its chairman (1973-1975)—which has executive responsibility for academic exchanges worldwide under the Fulbright-Hays Act. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is on the Board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Billington was married to the former Marjorie Anne Brennan, who served the Library for 28 years on a volunteer basis in multiple supportive roles. They had four children: Dr. Susan Billington Harper, Anne Billington Fischer, the Rev. James Hadley Billington Jr. and Thomas Keator Billington, as well as 12 grandchildren.

James H. Billington died on November 20, 2018, at age 89. His successor as 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.”

Selected Works at the Library of Congress