James H. Billington, the 13th Librarian of Congress and renowned scholar of Russia, today announced that he will retire from the position of Librarian effective January 1, 2016. In a video announcement shared with all Library staff, Billington said, "Leading this great institution alongside all of you for nearly three decades has been the honor and joy of my 42 years of public service in Washington, D.C."
Billington informed President Barack Obama and called congressional leadership to share his plans. The vacancy will be filled by presidential nomination, with confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
A timeline of select milestones of Billington’s Library career and related background is available here.
"Over the years I have been asked if I have been thinking about retiring; and the answer has always been ‘not really,’ because this Library has always been not just my job, but my life," Billington said. "However, I have never had more faith in the leadership and staff of the Library of Congress. The Library’s new, top management team is as deeply experienced, and creatively collegial, as any I have ever known, and I am confident that they will continue to innovate, adapt and improve on the work we have undertaken during my time as Librarian of Congress."
Billington enabled the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution to become one of the most innovative – largely by raising for the Library an unprecedented one-half billion dollars worth of donations from the private sector.
Billington was sworn in on Sept. 14, 1987, and is recognized for having brought the world’s largest library into the digital age.
He moved significant portions of the Library’s one-of-a-kind, multimedia top treasures online to create the National Digital Library in the 1990s, and then a multi-lingual World Digital Library, with the endorsement of UNESCO in the first decade of the 21st century.
To ensure good stewardship of taxpayer dollars, Billington sought a library-wide GAO audit of the Library’s financial systems early in his tenure and established the practice of annual independent library-wide audits, which have provided unqualified clean opinions for the last 19 consecutive years. He also established the office of the Library’s first Inspector General, and appointed its head. Billington also greatly expanded both the congressional and public use of the Library’s renovated Jefferson Building by successfully advocating for the Library’s connection to the Capitol Visitors Center via a new underground passageway.
Throughout his tenure, Billington has continuously stressed that the Congress of the United States has brought into being and sustained – since its purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private library exactly 200 years ago – the largest and most wide-ranging library in the world; and Congress has been the greatest institutional patron of recorded knowledge and creative cultural innovation in human history.
During Billington’s librarianship, the Library initiated and continued to manage an official online source for legislative information (Thomas.gov, 1995) that transitioned in 2014 to a new platform, Congress.gov. The Library of Congress’s 100-year-old Congressional Research Service (CRS) and its 183-year-old Law Library continued their excellent record of providing authoritative, confidential and non-partisan research and analysis to all members and committees of the Congress.
The Copyright Office provided outstanding services to the creative community, the Congress and the executive branch. Copyright deposits continued to enrich the Library’s collections with the copyrighted creativity of the American people – almost none of which was preserved before Congress placed the copyright registration system in the Library of Congress in 1870-1871.
Most dramatic of all, during Billington’s time as Librarian, was the many-sided growth of the de facto national library of the United States, adding to its collections a new digital library without subtracting from its traditional analog materials and services. This has been accomplished despite a 30 percent reduction in staff since the Library began its digital innovations.
During Billington’s tenure, the Library’s collection size has roughly doubled, from 85.5 million items in 1987 to more than 160 million items today. The Library added to its vast collections of important manuscripts the papers of Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Katharine Graham, Bob Hope, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Donald Rumsfeld, Stephen Sondheim and Caspar Weinberger, among many others. The Library also fulfilled Congress’s vision for the Veterans History Project, capturing oral histories and papers of veterans from World War I to the present day, an effort that this year will reach 100,000 collections. The Library also acquired copies of the complete, but previously largely inaccessible, Lafayette Archive at La Grange, and the 1507 Waldseemüller world map: the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate western hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean, and the first use of the word "America."
The Library’s preservation programs expanded greatly by launching the world’s largest mass deacidification project for paper-based library materials; by refurbishing the Library’s preservation labs; and by building the world’s largest and most up-to-date new facility for preserving audio-video material at the 46-acre Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia.
The Library also created and began implementing a multi-unit storage facility plan at Fort Meade, Maryland, for the Library’s still-expanding analog collections. Reading devices for the Library’s National Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped were thoroughly modernized for its 900,000 users throughout America.
Billington also enhanced the Library’s role in American cultural life, establishing annual prizes for lifetime achievement in popular song, American fiction and for literacy promotion, as well as the annual Library of Congress National Book Festival.
Billington has frequently praised the Library’s staff as "a national treasure in and of themselves," for their dedicated public service, their wide-ranging expertise and their commitment to excellence. He initiated numerous staff training and knowledge-transfer programs including a Junior Fellows Program and a Leadership Development Program, continuing right up to this year, when the Library became the first federal agency to take advantage of a new Office of Personnel Management regulation allowing for phased retirement.
Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, on June 1, 1929, Billington was educated in the public schools of the Philadelphia area. He was class valedictorian at both Lower Merion High School and Princeton University, where he graduated with highest honors in 1950. Three years later he earned his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College. Following service with the U.S. Army and in the Office of National Estimates, he taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 and subsequently at Princeton University, where he was professor of history from 1963 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 seven books on Russian and European history, most of which have been 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 of the Open World Leadership Center (1999-2011), a non-partisan initiative of the U.S. Congress that has brought more than 24,000 emerging young post-Soviet political leaders from Russia and successor states of the former U.S.S.R. to parallel communities throughout America. He has been the author and host of two major series on PBS television: The Humanities Film Forum in 1973 and The Face of Russia in 1998.
Billington has received 42 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 given the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University (1992), the UCLA Medal (1999), and received four awards from different Russian institutions as well as the Order of Friendship conveyed by the President of the Russian Federation, the highest order that a foreign citizen may receive. He was awarded the first Lafayette Prize by the French-American Cultural Foundation and has been decorated by the French Order of Arts and Letters and awarded the Legion of Honor by the President of France. He is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences; he has also received national awards from Brazil, Italy, Germany, the Republic of Korea, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, and received the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from President George W. Bush in 2008.
Billington enhanced the role of libraries in world culture by organizing three blockbuster exhibits in Washington of top treasures from three great libraries that he had worked in extensively as a scholar: the Vatican Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the British Library. He created the Living Legends Awards at the Library’s Bicentennial in 2000 and oversaw the harvesting of local celebratory practices for the Library’s American Folklife Center, sending educational and museum-quality facsimiles of top Library treasures for a year to 90 sites all over America.
Billington was a longtime member of the editorial advisory boards of Foreign Affairs and Theology Today and a member of the Fulbright Program’s Foreign Scholarship Board (1971-76), serving as its chairman (1973-1975). He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and serves on the Board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Billington married Marjorie Anne Brennan on June 22, 1957. They have four children (Susan Billington Harper, Anne Billington Fischer, James Hadley Billington, Jr., and Thomas Keator Billington) and 12 grandchildren.
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