June 10, 2015 James H. Billington's Tenure at the Library of Congress

Key Milestones

Contact: Gayle Osterberg (202) 707-0020

James H. Billington has served as the 13th Librarian of Congress since 1987, when the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed his appointment by President Ronald Reagan.

During his 28-year tenure at the Library, Billington has:

  • Raised more than half a billion dollars of private support to supplement Congressional appropriations—allowing the Library to increase dramatically its collections, programs, and digital outreach despite a 30-percent reduction in staff since 1992;
  • Pioneered a new range of no-fee, high-quality electronic services, greatly increasing the Library’s outreach to patrons both onsite and online, providing access to unique and varied Library resources ("to get the champagne out of the bottle") to the American people and the world;
  • Acquired copies of Lafayette’s complete but previously inaccessible papers in 1996 from his castle at La Grange, France (The Librarian is the only non-Frenchman on the Board of the foundation governing the castle);
  • Doubled the size of the Library’s traditional analog collections, from 85.5 million items in 1987 to more than 160 million items in 2014, and championed the Library’s historic commitment to collecting and preserving recorded human knowledge and creativity in multiple formats and languages for future generations;
  • Requested that GAO conduct the first modern Library-wide audit in 1987. This precedent led to regular annual financial audits which have produced unmodified ("clean") opinions since 1995;
  • Created the first Office of the Inspector General at the Library in 1987 to provide regular independent review of library operations;
  • Created the first-ever development office for private fundraising at the Library in 1987, and then established the James Madison Council in 1990, the first-ever national private sector donor-support group—allowing the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution to become one of the nation’s most innovative;
  • Launched the congressionally mandated National Film Preservation Board in 1988 to select 25 American films annually for preservation and inclusion in the new National Registry, to which the Librarian has since named 650 films;
  • Created the American Memory project in 1990, which became The National Digital Library in 1994, providing access to no-fee, online, one-of-a-kind digitized Library treasures of American history and culture that include curatorial explanations for K-12 education throughout America and beyond;
  • Started the Library Collections Security Oversight Committee in 1992 to ensure improved protection of collections;
  • Created the THOMAS.gov website in 1994 which enabled the public to freely access U.S. federal legislative information and expanded public access to legislative information through ongoing updates, and in 2012 introduced a new state-of-the-art framework for both Congress and the public, Congress.gov;
  • Launched the first online Library of Congress educational portal for K-12 teachers and students in 1996, adding in 2013 major new prizes and programs for advancing literacy;
  • Enlarged and technologically enhanced the public spaces of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building into a major national exhibition venue, allowing the Library to host more than 100 exhibitions, most of which were based on materials never before publicly displayed in America. These included treasures of the Vatican Library and of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, several on the Civil War and Lincoln, on African-American culture, on Religion and the founding of the American Republic, on the magnificent Kislak Collection of the Early Americas (now on permanent display), on the global celebration commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and on early American printing featuring the Rubenstein Bay Psalm Book;
  • Created the John W. Kluge Center in 2000, to increase engagement of a wide range of scholars with the U.S. Congress and other public leaders brought to the Library through endowed Kluge fellowships;
  • Established the Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity (now worth $1.5 million) in 2000, the first Nobel-level international prize for lifetime achievement in the humanities and social sciences (subjects not included in the Nobel awards);
  • Launched the congressionally mandated Veterans History Project in 2000 to collect, preserve, and make accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans from WWI to the present day;
  • Established the National Book Festival with Laura Bush in 2000, an annual celebration of reading and literacy that has served more than a million guests and more than 1,000 authors to date;
  • Launched the congressionally mandated National Registry of Recorded Sound in 2000, which has selected 25 recordings per year and 425 recordings to date;
  • Created Living Legend Awards in 2000 to honor artists, activists, filmmakers, and others who have contributed to America’s diverse cultural, scientific, and social heritage;
  • Established the Open World Leadership Center in 2000, which has administered 23,000 professional exchanges for emerging post-Soviet leaders in Russia, Ukraine, and the other successor states of the former USSR to visit counterparts in the United States (it began as a Library of Congress project, but soon became an independent agency in the legislative branch);
  • Launched a mass deacidification program in 2001, which has extended exponentially the lifespan of almost 4 million volumes and 12 million manuscript sheets;
  • Created new state-of-the-art collection storage modules at Fort Meade, the first opening in 2002, with four completed to date. They preserve and make rapidly accessible to Capitol Hill more than 4 million items from the Library’s still-rapidly-expanding analog collections;
  • Acquired the only copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map ("America’s birth certificate") in 2003 for permanent display in the Jefferson Building;
  • Established the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, which opened in 2007 at a 45-acre site in Culpeper, Virginia through the largest private gift ever made to the Library (more than $150 million by the Packard Humanities Institute) and $82.1 million additional support from Congress;
  • Created the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song in 2007 to celebrate 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 for November 2015;
  • Pioneered the Library’s online social media presence beginning in 2007, which has expanded to include blogs, Flickr, establishment of Flickr Commons, Facebook, iTunesU, Pinterest, RSS, Twitter, YouTube and other new media channels;
  • Launched "eCo" online copyright registration, status-checking, processing, and electronic file upload systems in 2008;
  • Created the Fiction Prize (now the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction) in 2008 to recognize distinguished lifetime achievement in the writing of fiction;
  • Established the Library of Congress Congressional Caucus in 2008 to draw attention to the Library’s curators and collections, and to encourage wider use of Library resources;
  • Created the World Digital Library in 2009, in association with UNESCO and 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;
  • Reconstructed, using privately raised funds, Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which was placed on permanent display in the Jefferson building in 2008;
  • Advocated successfully an underground connection between the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center and the Library in 2008 that has greatly increased both congressional usage and public tours of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building;
  • Created the Library’s first Young Readers Center in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building in 2009, and the first large-scale summer intern (Junior Fellows) program for university students in 1991;
  • Launched BARD, a state-of-the-art digital talking books mobile app for Braille and Audio Reading Downloads in partnership with the Library’s National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped in 2013, that enables free downloads of audio and Braille books to mobile devices via the Apple App Store;
  • Led the creation of Resource Description and Access (RDA) in 2010, a new cataloguing standard for the digital age implemented in 2013;
  • Established BIBFRAME in 2011, a new 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;
  • Sponsored the 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;
  • Created the National Jukebox in 2011 to provide streaming free online access to more than 10,000 out-of-print music and spoken word recordings;
  • Established with a major gift from David Rubenstein the Library of Congress Literacy Awards in 2013 to recognize and support achievements in improving literacy in the U.S. and abroad.


Appointed an entirely new top leadership team between December 2014 and July 2015 for the Library of Congress of the 21st century. They have all had extensive prior experience within the Library itself. They are now working both as creatively and collaboratively together and as collegially with the Library’s dedicated and multi-talented staff as any the Librarian has known. He is confident that they will continue to innovate, adapt, and improve on the work the Library has undertaken during the Librarian’s tenure.

The new executives are now actively and successfully fulfilling their new responsibilities without any increased cost to the Library.

Three other new appointments from this period will take the lead in producing specific results of Library-wide initiatives in the early autumn of 2015:

  1. The head of Library of Congress Scholarly Programs just celebrated the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Library’s Kluge Center, and will present in September the Nobel-level Kluge Prize for Lifelong Achievement in the Study of Humanity.
  2. The head of Library strategic planning will provide a new five-year Library-wide strategic plan for 2016-2020.
  3. The Interim CIO will be succeeded by a permanent CIO chosen from among the 553 applicants who applied for this position in the Library’s nationwide search.

In addition, the Librarian played a major role in adding important acquisitions to the Library, including the collections of: Irving Berlin (1992), Thurgood Marshall (1991), Bob Hope (1998), Stephen Sondheim (1993,1995), Leonard Bernstein (1993), Jackie Robinson (2001), Averell and Pamela Harriman (1991), Katharine Graham (2004), Harry Blackmun (1997), Charles Hard Townes (1999), Jack Kemp (2009), Sandra Day O’Connor (1991), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1998), Carl Sagan (2012), Herman Wouk (2008), Madeleine Albright (2014), Zbigniew Brzeziński (2003), The Political Cartoons of Herblock (2002), and Patrick Oliphant (1998, 2003), Carol M. Highsmith, 21st Century America Photography (2002-present), the Liljenquist Collection of Civil War photographic portraits (2010-present), Aaron Copland (1989), Ella Fitzgerald (1997), Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon (1992), Martha Graham (1998), Henry Mancini (2013), Ragheb Moftah Coptic Liturgical Music (1999), Gerry Mulligan (2005), Gordon Parks (2001)), Beverly Sills (1992), Oliver Smith (2012), Isaac Stern (2001), Roger Stevens (1994), Danny Kaye (1990) Alan Lomax (1994) and Rosa Parks (2014).



PR 15-105
ISSN 0731-3527