Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

October 25, 2006:


Librarian of Congress James Billington ’50 became the first head of a U.S. government agency to visit Iran in 25 years. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

James Billington ’50
Disseminating knowledge

At an age when most of his contemporaries have long since retired, James Billington ’50 presides over the Library of Congress with the exuberance of a small boy permitted to run amok in his eccentric Uncle Sam’s attic. Now in his 20th year at the helm of the venerable institution that advertises itself as “the largest repository of human knowledge in the world,” the former Princeton history professor brims with enthusiasm about the discoveries and improvements he continues to make.

Billington’s current infatuations run the gamut from blogs — which he used to research attitudes in the post-Soviet society for his latest book, Russia in Search of Itself (2004) — to technology that is obsolete. He recently discovered more than 10,000 wax cylinders of 1890s music in the library’s vaults, which staffers have begun to dub to CDs to make the music accessible to today’s listeners.

He’s a man on a mission: to preserve the library’s approximately 130 million holdings for future generations and to disseminate them more widely to today’s scholars and to the public. To that end, Billington has presided over a major project to make some of the library’s most precious holdings, such as rare maps and drafts of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and second inaugural address, available on the Web. “We’re digitizing things that before were accessible to only a few people,” Billington says. He also has involved the library in a “huge task” — archiving Web pages, to preserve the best of today’s Internet.

His outreach efforts aren’t merely virtual. In October 2004, Billington became the first head of a U.S. government agency to visit Iran in 25 years. In December 2005 the former Iranian national librarian came to Washington for a return visit. Billington’s trip also resulted in exchanges of material between Iran’s national library and the Library of Congress, and he hopes his trip will build other bridges between the two societies. “Culture is a meeting ground,” he says.

Completion of the new Capitol Visitors Center, expected late this year or early in 2007, will present another challenge to Billington. He predicts that the center, which will provide easy underground access between the Capitol and the library, will increase the number of library visitors each year from 1 million to 3.5 million. Billington sees it as an opportunity to show off its riches. He’s already planning displays of some of the library’s lesser-known holdings, such as patents from the U.S. Copyright Office.

Retiring doesn’t seem to be on Billington’s agenda. He notes that his brother, David Billington ’50, an active member of Princeton’s engineering faculty, “is older than I am” by two years. (David served a year in the Navy before entering college and James skipped a grade in elementary school.) The younger Billington believes he still has work to do. “The library is an incredible gold mine,” he says. “There’s never a day that goes by that you don’t find something new around here, and one thing I hope before I leave is to get more of it out so people can enjoy it.” P

By Kathleen Kiely ’77

Kathleen Kiely ’77 is a reporter for USA Today.