Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts James H. Billington: An Appreciation
James H. Billington: An Appreciation

James H. Billington: An Appreciation

  • Jason Steinhauer
  • November 30, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

James H. Billington may not be well-known to the average American, but to many in Washington, D.C., he was a permanent fixture. A scholar, adviser to Presidents, friend to Members of Congress, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, and the 13th Librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington was in charge of the world’s largest repository of knowledge, the Library of Congress, from 1987-2015. He died on November 20 at the age of 89.

I came to know Dr. Billington late in his life. When I joined the Library of Congress in 2009, he was already 80 years old. He would remain in charge of the Library for another six years. I’d never heard of Billington prior to joining the institution; I had only a vague notion that there was a Librarian of Congress. But I was fortunate to be involved in projects deeply personal to him. With Congressman Ron Kind, Dr. Billington created the Library’s Veterans History Project, which recorded the stories of America’s war veterans. That was the division of the Library that hired me. With John W. Kluge, Billington created The John W. Kluge Center, which provided fellowships to scholars from around the world to conduct research at the Library and interact with policymakers in Washington. That was where I would get promoted to in 2012. And Billington created the Library’s Leadership Development Program, in which I was a Fellow. He was responsible for much of my professional and personal development.

Billington’s legacy lies not solely in the programs he created, the money he raised, or the careers he enabled. Billington represented an era of intellect and statesmanship that was in decline even during his lifetime. He spoke and wrote with soaring rhetoric more apt for the Enlightenment than 21st century America. He read War & Peace in the original Russian. He loved lectures. He had close friends in both political parties. He believed in fostering bipartisan cooperation at home and American leadership abroad. He was a polymath who could impress Heads of State and scholars during the same dinner. Most importantly, Billington stood for enduring principles: books, learning, wisdom, democracy, and American leadership. He fought for those principles until the end of his life. Sadly, his voice was increasingly drowned out as the America we know today took shape. We need him now perhaps more than we ever did.


I’ll never forget the first time Dr. Billington called my office. “Jason, this is Jim Billington,” he began. This was in 2014, and by that time I certainly knew who he was. He was the Librarian of Congress, the iconic and legendary Dr. Billington. I was organizing a lunch for him and a few Members of Congress, and he wanted to talk through the meeting. Who would sit where? Would there be opening remarks? Were there enough members from both parties, Republicans and Democrats? What should he say? I was so nervous that immediately after the phone call I ran to my boss’s office, Dr. Carolyn Brown. “Watch out,” she said with a smile. “You’re on his radar, now.”

My boss knew what it meant to be on Dr. Billington’s radar. She had developed a wonderful friendship with him through the years, and he frequently called her to ask questions, pick her brain, or simply vent. She was director of the Kluge Center, in charge of Billington’s ultimate dream-turned-reality. From the onset of his tenure, Billington imagined the Library of Congress as the ideal meeting ground for great scholarly minds to interact with America’s most important lawmakers, bridging the divide between “thinkers” and “doers.” Billington sensed a widening gap between knowledge and power. Members of Congress were arriving in Washington with more degrees, but the challenges of governing were greater than in previous generations. The world was more complicated. Making sense of the deluge of information was more daunting. Billington admired Members of Congress, and was personal friends with many. He heard their laments: the sheer complexity of problems to solve, the tangled nature of world affairs, public life that was advocacy-driven and dictated by media cycles. To govern effectively, one had to be close to trusted information; it’s why the early Republic had placed the original Library of Congress in the U.S. Capitol. There needed to be a link between great thought and enlightened legislature. The Library was that place.

The Kluge Center would be where great minds could focus on the pressing issues of the day, making use of the Library’s collections and providing wisdom to Congress in off-the-record conversations. As Billington put it, to bring a little bit of “Greece into Rome.” Made possible by a $60 million gift from philanthropist John W. Kluge, the Center and its corresponding $1 million prize for scholarship would invest and celebrate great minds like no other institution had.

Billington had a predilection for greatness, and great minds were to be revered above all else. He also had a predilection for hierarchy. Great leaders were served by staff; senior staff were served by junior staff. Billington had an elite pedigree: ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower, a student at Princeton, a professor at Harvard, and a Rhodes Scholar. (His daughter was also a Rhodes Scholar.) He surrounded himself with elite company. His friends included statesmen such as Ronald Reagan, George Shultz, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Members of Congress such as Ted Stevens, Claiborne Pell, and Tom Lantos; scholars such as Merrill Peterson, Jaroslav Pelikan, and John Hope Franklin; and billionaires such as John W. Kluge and Jerry Jones. If Aesop’s quip is true that a person is known by the company he keeps, then Billington was truly in an elite circle of statesmen, scholars, and philanthropists.

He had the rhetoric to match. His language was often soaring and aspirational. He used words such as “catalytic” and phrases such as “unique repository” and “a curiosity that has to be engaged before it can be satisfied.” His sentences were poetic. But his poetry was at odds with the developing internet culture that privileged snarky tweets and pithy sound bites. These were never Billington’s forte. His belief in hierarchy put him at odds with the flatness of the web and the century’s emerging social movements. On the internet, everyone speaks. In Billington’s world, the great ones spoke while everyone else learned. Billington more resembled a man of letters from the 1800s than a 21st century social media personality. His role models included Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. He privileged age and experience at a time where the culture was increasingly celebrating youth and overnight success, in entrepreneurs or athletes. In an era when snappy Ted Talks and flashy Apple product announcements were all the rage, Billington revered the hour-long lecture. He had no greater pleasure, perhaps, than listening to seasoned men and women weave together experience and wisdom into evocative oration.


If Billington was a Washington man, intimately comfortable within the halls of power, he was far less comfortable on Main Street. He revered local libraries, yet he was not at ease in them and did not see the Library of Congress as an extension of the public library. He was not a trained librarian. He was uncomfortable with technology and often confounded by it. He was awkward on camera. He had a formality that did not lend itself to digital media. He never answered questions briefly, even when advised to do so by Congress or journalists. Management was also not Billington’s forte. Management issues nagged the Library nearly from the outset of his tenure—some he inherited and others he created. He had a particular dislike for the minutiae of oversight, bookkeeping, infrastructure, human resources, and operations. One got the sense that the transformation of the Library from a university into a government agency frustrated him. It burdened him to be dragged into. He resisted the notion that the Copyright Office could become a cash cow for the government, even as outside consultants urged the Library to charge hundreds of dollars to copyright each work. Billington believed America’s creators should pay as little as possible to protect their ideas. He struggled to make the Library seem fun and youthful. His charisma, intellect, and reputation continually brought big names to the Library, but he never became the leader that could rally a staff or a nation behind intellectualism. He was brilliant and loveable, but not always likeable.

Nevertheless, Billington passionately believed that the Library was the perfect resource for the coming Information Age, and that Washington would be the information capital of the world. Open access to knowledge would be key to growing democratization, and the Library of Congress would be at the center. But the epicenter would actually emerge 3,000 miles away, in Silicon Valley. While Billington was laying out his vision, Sergei Brin and Larry Page were still in high school. Yet it was they who combined the speed, convenience, and internet sensibility that the Library never could, cementing their leadership of the Information Age in the process. Soil was indeed needed to grow new ideas, but that soil was not the millions of books and artifacts on the Library’s shelves. Rather, it was seed money, a culture of competitive masculinity, and an obsessive devotion to efficiency and problem-solving through the use of technology. Billington did not foresee this because it was so antithetical to how he viewed the world. He also did not foresee how the democratization of information would lead to opinion-creation superseding knowledge. Democracy includes everyone’s right to express an opinion—and free information combined with social media provides a megaphone to any particular opinion at any given moment. Billington underestimated how this would engender an antipathy toward patient scholarship. Social media has largely evolved into a series of monologues and soliloquies; the desire to hear one’s own voice has subsumed the desire to listen to others. Billington was confounded by social media even as he recognized its importance. It was he who advocated to archive Twitter without fully understanding what that would entail.

The Library was very much Billington’s Library. He believed, perhaps to a fault, that his stature would enable the institution to survive. Congress had repeatedly threatened to carve the Library into pieces—to move the Copyright Office to the Department of Commerce, change the statute of the Congressional Research Service, or suspend the World Digital Library. He believed that he alone could keep the Library together, even as the institution was gradually hollowed out through the years—6,000 staff reduced to 3,000 and funding cut and/or held level (which was essentially a cut due to inflation). These trends were already in motion since 1980, but increased as Congress looked to trim deficits and demonstrate to constituents that they could reduce government spending. Multiple attempts were made to decrease the Library’s global collections and acquire fewer items in fewer languages. Each time Billington appealed to Congress, evoking Thomas Jefferson’s words that there was no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.


Undeniable was Dr. Billington’s profound understandings of history, philosophy, politics, and international affairs. His insights were sometimes prophetic. In a 1993 testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Sub Committee on Arms Control, Billington brilliantly diagnosed the messages that America and the West were sending to Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world by not aiding in Russia’s transition to democracy. In propping up dictatorships in pursuit of economic gain, or asserting that we did not have capacity to tend to democratization overseas because we had our own problems at home, America empowered strongmen. Billington feared demagoguery. He understood the dangers of ethnic nationalism. He loved democracy. He celebrated the pluralism of the Library’s collections and recognized that wisdom was not relegated to one culture, one geographic location, or one socio-economic class. Wherever wisdom lay, in whatever language, it should be cultivated and exalted.

Books were central to his vision. Books enabled democracy. Democracy required literacy and critical intellect, and books encouraged an active mind. “The chip won’t replace books,” he once said; the internet was simply a means of transmitting information, while knowledge and wisdom would always be transmitted through the book. Under Billington, the Library collected books from around the world, in more than 450 languages, even as other institutions ceased to do so. Along with First Lady Laura Bush, he created the National Book Festival, which still draws tens of thousands of book lovers to Washington each year. From early in his tenure, he tried to encourage an American love for intellectualism. He believed that the Library of Congress could be the setting for great scholars, thinkers, and governments to fall in love with books again. He imagined the Library as a place where scholarship and democratic governance would come together, combatting tribalism, anti-intellectualism, and declining fluency in foreign languages. The Library of Congress would be a daily celebration of all aspects of the mind. He longed to foster that appreciation in others, especially in children.

It is a vision that feels even more urgent today than it did when it was first expressed.


To be invited into the Librarian’s ceremonial office was always a thrill. To have lunch with the Librarian an even greater one. One of the most memorable afternoons of my career at the Library was when I participated in a lunch with Dr. Billington and world-famous philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, who were to split the $1.5M Kluge Prize the following evening. To be present at the gathering of three brilliant minds bantering back and forth about philosophy, history, politics, society, religion, and economics was to see Billington’s vision come to fruition. Sure, these three men were in their 80’s, their heydays past. But brilliant minds were meant to be celebrated, as much as we celebrate brilliant athletes, actors, politicians, or musicians. Billington had created a space to have that celebration.

James H. Billington was a visionary, and it was one of the honors of my life to know him. America, and intellectual life around the world, has lost one of its greatest champions—at precisely the time we need them most.