After Nearly 30 Years, Librarian Of Congress Is Calling It Quits

Jun 10, 2015
Originally published on June 11, 2015 11:30 am

The head of the world's largest library has reached the end of the story.

James Billington, who has been the librarian of Congress since the Reagan administration, says he is retiring. The Library of Congress says Billington, 86, will step down on Jan. 1, 2016.

In a statement, Billington says, "Leading this great institution ... for nearly three decades has been the honor and joy of my 42 years of public service in Washington." The statement adds:

" '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 is a Russia scholar and the author of several books on Russian and European history. During his tenure at the Library of Congress, he has overseen the institution's transformation into the digital age (though it still collects plenty of books, photographs, recordings and other "legacy media.")

As we've reported recently:

"The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest cultural institution, and the largest library in the world. Its mission is broad, everything from providing research to members of Congress, to administering copyright laws, to maintaining a collection of some 160 million items. It has put a quarter of those items online. Critics say the library needs to move more aggressively to adjust to the digital age."

And there were some who felt that Billington had perhaps stayed on the job too long. As The Washington Post reported:

" 'There's nobody running the ship,' said retired inspector general Karl Schornagel, who worked with Billington for almost 13 years until retiring in 2014. 'There's a lot of individual parties doing their own thing.'

"In an interview Monday, Billington bristled at the suggestion that the library's technological problems have harmed its reputation as a global leader. 'We're still taking the lead,' he said, 'Everybody else didn't take the lead.' "

The library is celebrating the 200th anniversary of its purchase of Thomas Jefferson's personal library. That collection was used to replace what the British burned and pillaged in 1814, when it was housed in the Capitol.

President Obama will have the opportunity to nominate Billington's replacement, which is subject to Senate confirmation.

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It is the end of a long chapter for James Billington. The librarian of Congress has announced he's retiring at the end of the year. He is 86, and he's held the post since being named by President Ronald Reagan. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Billington announced his retirement in a video, telling employees the library has been, quote, "not just my job but my life." Billington was a Russia scholar before coming to the library in 1987 and has written several books on Russia and Europe. During his nearly three-decade tenure, he presided over a period of immense changes. The size of the collection nearly doubled to 160 million items. And under Billington, the library began digitizing the collection. Suzanne Thorin served as Billington's chief of staff before heading libraries at Indiana and Syracuse University. She calls Billington visionary, saying among other things, he was key to putting Congress's legislative process online.

SUZANNE THORIN: The whole effort of THOMAS, where the workings of the Congress and the bills that are being processed were put out into the public and easy to get at, Jim was right behind it 1,000 percent. The National Digital Library Program was unheard of at that point. The fundraising that he did was incredible.

NAYLOR: But there have been critics too, especially in recent years, who said Billington was imperious, resisted change and that the digitization effort was lagging. The Government Accountability Office issued a report pointedly saying the library lacked the leadership needed to address its information technology problems. Thorin says Billington is a bit of a throwback but also brilliant.

THORIN: I don't even think he does email, or I don't even think he has a cell phone. But when I look back at the time I had with him, I can say he taught me more than any boss I've ever had in my life.

NAYLOR: The Library of Congress has multiple roles. It provides research for members of Congress, administers copyright laws and houses a vast collection of rare manuscripts, early recordings and films, even musical instruments. Congress has cut its budget in recent years. It's now at some $630 million annually, and staff has been reduced. President Obama will now have the rare opportunity to nominate a new librarian of Congress to succeed Billington, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.