A Librarian of Principle, If Not Perfection

James Billington ’50
José López/The New York Times/​Redux

June 1, 1929 Nov. 20, 2018

IT CAN BE TEMPTING to focus solely on James Billington ’50’s formidable intellect. After all, he learned Russian as a teenager, reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in Tolstoy’s native language. At Princeton he was a history major and graduated summa cum laude as class valedictorian. He went on to write nine books, including the landmark The Icon and the Axe, which led President Ronald Reagan to seek his expertise and insight on Soviet Russia. When the Reagans went to Moscow in 1988 for the president’s summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, Billington was there.

In 1987, Reagan named Billington to be the librarian of Congress, a post he held for nearly three decades. While Billington was a distinguished Russian and Soviet expert, a Rhodes scholar, an Army veteran, and a professor at Harvard and Princeton, his leadership of what is known as America’s library is his best-known legacy.

Over 28 years as the 13th leader of the country’s largest federal cultural institution, Billington doubled the size of the library’s traditional collections to more than 160 million items and started to digitize library materials to make them available online. His innovations include co-founding the National Book Festival with former first lady Laura Bush, an annual American fiction prize for distinguished lifetime achievement, and the National Film Registry. He got private philanthropy and corporate donors excited about maps, manuscripts, and other cultural artifacts. He created the library’s first development office and the first national private-sector donor-support group.

But he retired in 2015 after government reports found a backlog of millions of uncataloged items in warehouses and warned that the library’s technology systems were mismanaged. When he stepped down, he said the job had been the highlight of his professional life.

On Princeton’s campus as a professor, he embodied the archetype of an erudite yet popular college professor who, through his excitement for events and people long dead and often forgotten, shaped young minds to consider previously unconceived paths. He taught there for 12 years, until 1974.

His “gift for bringing long-ago minds and events back to life set my mind on fire,” journalist Gary Diedrichs ’69 wrote to PAW about Billington’s Russian history lectures. “He was the reason I ultimately decided to major in history.”

Paul Sittenfeld ’69 is most grateful for how Billington used his gravitas outside the classroom in support of students who were pushing the University to create an alternative to the eating clubs. For juniors and seniors in the 1960s, Sittenfeld says, bicker meant the difference between having a place to eat and foraging on your own.

Billington “stuck his neck out, clearly and courageously — if not wisely — to support us,” Sittenfeld says. The University eventually set aside two buildings, 83 and 91 Prospect Avenue, which became Stevenson Hall, the first non-bicker University-managed dining facility for upperclass students.

There were other faculty who lent their support, Sittenfeld says, “but it would have never succeeded without fine people like Jim Billington. He was a markedly principled person.” 

Theola DeBose ’96 is a former Washington Post reporter and founder of the career-change online course Life After Journalism.


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