James H. Billington
13th Librarian of Congress
In office
September 14, 1987 – September 30, 2015
PresidentRonald Reagan
George H. W. Bush
Bill Clinton
George W. Bush
Barack Obama
Preceded byDaniel J. Boorstin
Succeeded byDavid S. Mao (Acting)
Personal details
James Hadley Billington

(1929-06-01)June 1, 1929
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedNovember 20, 2018(2018-11-20) (aged 89)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Alma materPrinceton University (AB)
Balliol College, Oxford (DPhil)

James Hadley Billington (June 1, 1929 – November 20, 2018)[1] was an American academic and author who taught history at Harvard and Princeton before serving for 42 years as CEO of four federal cultural institutions. He served as the 13th Librarian of Congress after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, and his appointment was approved unanimously by the U.S. Senate. He retired as Librarian on September 30, 2015.[2]


Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Billington was educated in Philadelphia-area public schools. He was class valedictorian at both Lower Merion High School and Princeton University, where he graduated with highest honors and an A.B. in history in 1950 after completing a senior thesis titled "Nicholas Berdyaev."[3] Three years later, he earned his doctorate in Russian history from Balliol College of the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar and student of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.[1][4]

Following service with the U.S. Army and the Office of National Estimates, he taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 and subsequently at Princeton University, where he was a professor of history from 1964 to 1974.[1][4]

From 1973 to 1987, Billington was director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the nation's official memorial in Washington, D.C., 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.[5]

Billington was married to the former Marjorie Anne Brennan. They had four children: Susan Billington Harper, Anne Billington Fischer, the Rev. James Hadley Billington Jr., and Thomas Keator Billington, as well as 12 grandchildren.[6] Billington and his daughter Susan were the first father and daughter to both be awarded Rhodes Scholarships and to use them to earn Doctorates of Philosophy at Oxford University.

Library of Congress

External audio
audio icon National Press Club Luncheon Speakers, James H. Billington, January 12, 1989, speech at 6:34-30:01, National Press Club[7]
Billington watches as Raisa Gorbacheva listens to Marilyn Quayle at a display of books and other items at the Library of Congress in 1990

Billington was sworn in as the Librarian of Congress on September 14, 1987. He was the 13th person to hold the position since the Library of Congress was established in 1800. He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan and his appointment was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.[8]

During his 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 in 2014.[9] He led the acquisition of Lafayette's previously inaccessible papers in 1996 from Château de la Grange-Bléneau in France. Billington has since been the only non-Frenchman on the Board of the foundation governing the castle.[10] He also 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.

Billington pioneered the reconstruction, using privately raised funds, of Thomas Jefferson's original library, which was placed on permanent display in the Jefferson building in 2008.[11] He enlarged and technologically enhanced public spaces of the Jefferson Building into a national exhibition venue, and hosted over 100 exhibitions, most featuring materials not previously displayed publicly in the United States.[12] These included exhibits on the Vatican Library[13] and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France,[14] several on the Civil War and Lincoln, on African-American culture, on Religion and the founding of the American Republic, the Early Americas (the Kislak Collection is now on permanent display), and the global celebration commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and on early American printing featuring the Rubenstein Bay Psalm Book. Billington also advocated successfully for an underground connection between the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center and the Library in 2008 to increase congressional usage and public tours of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building.[9]

Billington launched a mass deacidification program in 2001, which has extended the lifespan of almost 4 million volumes and 12 million manuscript sheets; and a new collection storage modules at Fort Meade, the first opening in 2002, to preserve and make accessible more than 4 million items from the Library's analog collections. Billington 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. He created the Library's first Young Readers Center in the Jefferson Building in 2009, and the first large-scale summer intern (Junior Fellows) program for university students in 1991.[15] Under Billington, the Library also 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.[16]

During his tenure at the Library of Congress, Billington championed no-fee electronic services,[17] beginning with:

Billington directed the growth of the Library of Congress' digital outreach and analog collections during the period 1992 through 2014 when the Library also experienced a 30 percent decrease in its staff largely due to legislative appropriations cutbacks. Every three years, the Librarian reviews the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In 2010, Billington's decision to open new DMCA loopholes resulted in his being described as "the most important person you never heard of, having headed the library since well before the Web was spun or the DMCA was even a glint in the Recording Industry Association of America's eye ... It was probably Billington's unassailable reputation for integrity and probity that won the LOC this power under the DMCA.[28]

Billington championed the Library's American Memory National Digital Library (NDL) Program,[29] which makes freely available on-line over 24 million American historical items from the collections of the Library and other research institutions. Besides these unique American Memory materials, the Library Internet services include the congressional database, THOMAS; the on-line card catalog; exhibitions; information from the U.S. Copyright Office; and a web site for children and families called America's Library. In fiscal year 2013 the Library's website recorded 84 million visits and 519 million page views.[30]

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

George Soros (left) and James H. Billington at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., on January 22, 2001, to discuss the views expressed in Soros' new book, Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism.

During Billington's tenure at the Library of Congress, he raised more than half a billion dollars of private support to supplement Congressional appropriations. These private funds were used to increase Library collections, programs, and digital outreach. Billington 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 also asked the GAO to conduct the first Library-wide audit in 1987. This precedent led to regular annual 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.[9]

At the 2011 National Book Festival, author David McCullough said: "We have had a number of eminent distinguished Librarians of Congress: Archibald MacLeish, the famous poet, Daniel Boorstin, the scholar and historian .... But we have never had a more accomplished, productive, inspirational or far-seeing Librarian of Congress than James Billington."[39]

There were however critics who felt that his approach of wooing wealthy private donors[40] was inappropriate, and his management was criticized by a number of inquiries by government oversight agencies and librarians.[41]

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) and The Face of Russia (1998), a companion book to the three-part 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 also wrote and hosted a nationally televised series for PBS, "The Humanities Film Forum", with Mark Waxman, executive producer, in 1973.[4]

External video
video icon Q&A interview with Billington on his 20 years at the Library of Congress, July 1, 2007, C-SPAN

Billington accompanied ten congressional delegations to Russia and the former Soviet Union, making him, in the words of commentator George Weigel, "the personal tutor in Russian affairs to several generations of members of the House and the Senate."[42] In June 1988, Billington accompanied President and Mrs. Reagan to the Soviet Summit in Moscow. In October 2004, he headed a Library of Congress delegation to Tehran that expanded exchanges between the Library of Congress and the National Library of Iran. Billington was the most senior U.S. government official to openly visit Iran in 25 years.[38]


Billington received 42 honoris causa degrees, as well as the Presidential Citizen's Medal (2008), Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University (1992), the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement (1992),[43] the UCLA Medal (1999), and the Pushkin Medal of the International Association of the Teachers of Russian Language and Culture (1999). He was awarded the Order of Friendship by the President of the Russian Federation (2008), the highest order that a foreign citizen may receive. He received honorary doctorates from Tbilisi State University in Georgia (1999) and the Russian State University for the Humanities (2001), and the University of Oxford (2002).[4]

Billington was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985.[44] He was an elected member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and has been decorated as Chevalier (1985), Chevalier of the Legion of Honor (2007), and again as a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters (1991) of France, as Commander of the National Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil (2002), awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (2002), and a Knight Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany (1995). Billington was awarded the first Lafayette Prize by the French-American Cultural Foundation (2007). He has also been awarded the Gwanghwa Medal by the Republic of Korea (1991), and the Chingiz Aitmatov Gold Medal by the Kyrgyz Republic (2001). Altogether, Billington received decorations and awards from 15 foreign governments and universities.[4]

Billington was a longtime member of the editorial advisory boards of Foreign Affairs and of Theology Today, and a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (1971–1976; chairman, 1973–1975), which has executive responsibility for academic exchanges worldwide under the Fulbright-Hays Act. He was on the Board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and was a member of the American Philosophical Society.[4]


Billington died November 20, 2018, at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., of complications from pneumonia. He was 89.[45][46]


External video
video icon Booknotes interview with Billington on Russia Transformed (September 13, 1992). C-SPAN.
video icon Presentation by Billington on The Face of Russia (November 10, 1998). C-SPAN.
video icon Presentation by Billington on Russia in Search of Itself (April 20, 2004). C-SPAN.

Television productions

Contributing author


Book contributions

Book reviews


Selected Papers from ADL '95 Forum held in McLean, Virginia (May 1995).


  1. ^ a b c McFadden, Robert D. (21 November 2018). "James H. Billington, 89, Dies; Led Library of Congress Into Digital Age". The New York Times. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  2. ^ Osterberg, Gayle (September 25, 2015). "Billington to Retire September 30". News from the Library of Congress. U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved September 25, 2015.
  3. ^ Billington, James Hadley (1950). "Nicholas Berdyaev". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ a b c d e f "James H. Billington (1929-)". The Library of Congress. Retrieved 2018-11-21.
  5. ^ "About | Wilson Center". www.wilsoncenter.org. 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  6. ^ "About the Librarian". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  7. ^ "National Press Club Luncheon Speakers, James H. Billington, January 12, 1989". National Press Club via Library of Congress. Retrieved October 27, 2016.
  8. ^ "Legislative Branch Agency Appointments: History, Processes, and Recent Actions" (PDF). Congressional Research Service. August 12, 2021. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  9. ^ a b c "Key Milestones of James H. Billington's Tenure | News Releases – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  10. ^ "Microfilmed Layfayette Papers Now Available – News Releases (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  11. ^ "Thomas Jefferson's Library | Exhibitions – Library of Congress". loc.gov. 11 April 2008. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  12. ^ "All Exhibitions – Exhibitions (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  13. ^ "Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library & Renaissance Culture | Exhibitions – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  14. ^ "Creating French Culture | Exhibitions – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. 1995-09-08. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  15. ^ "2015 Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program Home (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  16. ^ "Gateway to Knowledge – Educational Resources – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  17. ^ "In a kingdom of books, nation's librarian champions digital age". Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  18. ^ "American Memory from the Library of Congress – Home Page". memory.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  19. ^ "Congress.gov | Library of Congress". www.congress.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  20. ^ "Teacher Resources | Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  21. ^ "Kids and Families". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  22. ^ "Library to Archive Groundbreaking Social Network (May 2010) – Library of Congress Information Bulletin". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  23. ^ "eCO Registration System | U. S. Copyright Office". www.copyright.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  24. ^ "Background – World Digital Library". www.wdl.org. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  25. ^ "BIBFRAME – Bibliographic Framework Initiative (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  26. ^ "National Jukebox LOC.gov". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  27. ^ "NLS Home". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  28. ^ "Billington opens new DMCA loopholes | ZDNet". ZDNet. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  29. ^ "About the Librarian". loc.gov.
  30. ^ "Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013" (PDF). Library of Congress. 2014. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  31. ^ "2015 Book Festival | National Book Festival – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  32. ^ "The John W. Kluge Center – Library of Congress". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  33. ^ "Inside the Nuclear Bunker Where America Preserves Its Movie History". Wired. 2015-07-07. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  34. ^ "Preserving Audiovisual Works: The Packard Campus – Digital Preservation (Library of Congress)". www.digitalpreservation.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  35. ^ "The Packard Campus – A/V Conservation (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  36. ^ "Veterans History Project (Library of Congress)". www.loc.gov. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  37. ^ "Gershwin Prize". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  38. ^ a b "Founding Chairman | OpenWorld". www.openworld.gov. Archived from the original on 2015-09-05. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  39. ^ "David McCullough". C-SPAN.org. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  40. ^ McGlone, Peggy (August 12, 2015). "Librarian's trips abroad, posh hotels all paid for by James Madison Council". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  41. ^ Shear, Michael D. (June 10, 2015). "Library of Congress Chief Retires Under Fire". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 11, 2015. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  42. ^ "In Praise of James Billington". National Review. 2015-04-06. Retrieved 2015-09-21.
  43. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". www.achievement.org. American Academy of Achievement.
  44. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved July 20, 2011.
  45. ^ Langer, Emily. "James H. Billington, long-reigning librarian of Congress, dies at 89". washingtonpost.com. Retrieved November 21, 2018.
  46. ^ McFadden, Robert D. (21 November 2018). "James H. Billington, 89, Dies; Led Library of Congress Into Digital Age". The New York Times. Retrieved February 27, 2020.


Government offices Preceded byDaniel Boorstin Librarian of Congress 1987–2015 Succeeded byDavid MaoActing