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Program The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress

Kluge Center History

Since its inception in 2000, The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress has brought top scholars from around the world to the Library of Congress and made their knowledge, creativity, and wisdom accessible to the U.S. Congress and the American people. Created through the joint vision of James H. Billington, the 13th Librarian of Congress, and philanthropist John W. Kluge, the Kluge Center was founded on the idea that the world’s most important lawmakers, the U.S. Congress, would benefit from having a select group of the outstanding intellectuals within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol.

Nestled within the historic walls of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, accomplished scholars would mine the Library’s unparalleled collections, distill wisdom from them, interact with and energize one another, and engage in conversation with policymakers and other public figures on matters of national and societal import. Billington and Kluge also envisioned that the Center would serve as an incubator for a new generation of scholars by hosting post-doctoral fellows who would conduct research at the Center and make consequential use of the Library’s collections. Finally, they conceived of a $1 million prize that would honor sustained intellectual achievement connected to civic engagement by an eminent scholar in the humanities and social sciences, fields not recognized by the Nobel Prizes.

From these aspirational origins in 2000, a world-renowned research center emerged. The Kluge Center now boasts more than 1,000 alumni who have served as scholars-in-residence, seminar participants, lecturers, or speakers. It has immortalized ten intellectual giants from around the world with the conferral of the Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. It has convened hundreds of events and conversations among experts on topics such as foreign policy, astrobiology, ethics, politics, history, and the effects of digital technology on society. It has brought to Washington for the first time those whose scholarly careers span decades, as well as those just beginning their scholarly journeys. The John W. Kluge Center has been an intellectual resource for the Congress and the American people for nearly 20 years.

A Shared Dream

“A good idea not implemented is no idea at all.”

John W. Kluge

The Center owes its founding to the thirteenth Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, and to philanthropist John W. Kluge. Billington and Kluge held a shared vision to create a distinct space inside the Library’s historic Thomas Jefferson Building where the world’s leading thinkers could make consequential use of the greatest collection of human knowledge and interact naturally over a period of time with political Washington. For the United States Congress, this space would provide access to the wisdom of mature scholars, and a haven for serious discourse only a short walk from the U.S. Capitol.

At the age of eight John Kluge stood on the deck of the USS George Washington with other German immigrants. It was 1922, and he was sailing to America with his mother, Gertrude Kluge Leitert, and his stepfather, Oscar Leitert, Kluge’s father having been killed in World War I. They made their way to Detroit, where Kluge grew up doing odd jobs around the family farm and paint shop on the outskirts of the city.

Kluge’s stepfather disapproved of education, so John left home to finish high school. Eventually he entered Columbia University, where his energy, intelligence, and drive were evident. He earned a degree in economics. Later he served as a U.S. Army intelligence officer in World War II, and bought an interest in a radio station in 1946. For decades he invested in radio, television, and cellphone technology. When he sold his multimedia empire, he earned roughly $2.3 billion, making Kluge one of the wealthiest men in the world.

Kluge had always had an abiding interest in education and democracy and its institutions. He had been a generous donor to Columbia University and many other causes throughout his career, but the Kluge Center was to be special: a harkening back to the importance of the education of which he might have been deprived at an early age, a determination to address pressing social and political problems in America and beyond, and a desire to keep open the portals of enquiry. As he later told his son, John Kluge, Jr., “A scholar knows that, when he knows everything, he shuts his mind to anything new.”

During his 28-year career as Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington doubled the size of the Library of Congress collection, brought the Library into the digital age, and launched a series of programs that raised the visibility of the Library nationally and globally. Among his pioneering initiatives were, the World Digital Library, the National Book Festival, The Young Readers Center, the Audio-Visual Conservation Center, the Veterans History Project, and The John W. Kluge Center. A renowned scholar of Russia and the former Soviet Union, Billington had been director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars prior to his confirmation as the 13th Librarian of Congress.

Billington and Kluge worked together for more than a decade prior to the Kluge Center’s creation. Shortly after he was appointed Librarian of Congress in 1987, Billington formed the James Madison Council, a group of private citizens who could offer advice and fund-raising capability to the Library. He asked Kluge, a President of Metro Media and a resident of Charlottesville, Virginia, to chair the Council and help raise funds for Library projects not covered by Congressional appropriations.

The two became friends, and, as the year 2000 approached, they discussed what Kluge might wish to consider as an appropriate gift to the Library on the occasion of the institution’s 200th anniversary. Kluge’s own experience of rising from an impoverished German immigrant to a successful businessman in America led him to value education. He was attracted to Billington’s vision of a prestigious center for scholars on Capitol Hill and pledged a $60 million gift to enable its creation.

The collaboration was announced on October 5, 2000, in a press conference outside the U.S. Senate Chamber. Members of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Library, Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Representative Bill Thomas (R-California), were present when Mr. Kluge’s donation—the largest private gift ever given to the Library of Congress—was made public. The Center’s Charter made clear its purpose:

“The Center will assemble the finest minds characterized by broad historical or philosophical vision and capable of providing dispassionate wisdom and intelligent mediation of the knowledge in the Library’s collections… They will have the opportunity through residence in the Jefferson Building both to distill the wisdom from the rich resources of the Library and to stimulate, through informal conversations and meetings, Members of Congress, their support staffs and the broader public policy community. The Center’s Scholars and Fellows will help bridge the divide between knowledge and power.”

The Setting

The Kluge Center resides within the first floor of the historic Thomas Jefferson Building. Officially opened on July 17, 2002, the Center was designed by architect Arthur Cotton Moore. Comprising two-levels, the space includes 13 offices for distinguished chairs and visiting scholars and 26 carrels for younger fellows. Unlike in a university, scholars are not segregated by subject matter or in discipline-specific departments. The design was purposefully created to facilitate encounters and interactions between scholars from different disciplines and differing career paths, thus creating a fluid and lively spirit of inquiry.

The Center’s charter, presented to Congress, reflected the sentiment of the Library’s founding father Thomas Jefferson who “asked to be remembered as the founder of an educational institution rather than as President of the United States.” A guiding principle of the charter affirmed the Kluge Center founders’ “abiding concern with education and the opportunity for people to use knowledge for their own and … the Nation’s benefit.” The Kluge Center would seek to be catalytic rather than bureaucratic, to deepen rather than merely recycle the work of other institutions and individuals already in Washington. Most importantly, it would “reinvigorate the interconnection between thought and action … [bridging] the divide between knowledge and power.”

On May 6, 2003, the Library celebrated Kluge’s $60 million donation for the creation of the Center in a ceremony inside the Library’s Main Reading Room. Kluge was introduced under the reading room’s majestic dome by Billington, who said that Kluge’s gift would help to make “America’s oldest federal cultural institution an innovative force for the new millennium.” Kluge told the assembled guests that he wished he had met the Librarian of Congress 30 years earlier. “The program would have had 30 years of life, and I’m sorry that I will not see it in the next 15 years. But I know that the seed has been planted.”