Daniel Boorstin: A Man of the Book, a Gift to America

Posted March 2, 2004 at 4:17pm

Daniel Boorstin, who served as Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987, died Saturday at age 89. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian’s successor gave the following eulogy at the funeral on Tuesday.

Dan Boorstin was a great American: the inspirational head of two important national institutions; a key figure — along with his friends Dillon Ripley and Roger Stevens — in the cultural coming of age of our nation’s capital; and a matchless chronicler of the uniqueness, the innovative spirit and the everyday practicality of our shared American experience.

He was an exuberant humanist who brought high literary style to a wide popular audience. He put things together when others were taking them apart. He kept history alive by telling it as his story at a time when many were dehumanizing it, first with ideological prejudice and and then with methodological pomposity. He was an optimist but also a critic — providing us an early warning of the difference between real and pseudo events, between people who actually do things and manufactured celebrities who are simply well-known for being well-known.

He created in his two great trilogies an original American version of the tradition of sweeping, multivolume histories that flourished in England from Gibbon to Toynbee. His longtime friend and colleague Jaroslav Pelikan told me yesterday that Dan had given him crucial early advice and encouragement as Jary was embarking on his own monumental multivolume history.

It was fun to be with Dan in person and through his writings. He mixed erudition with epigrammatic wit and colorful vignettes. He could be contentious and even temperamental, but almost always in defense of someone or some institution to which he was loyal at a time when it was being unfairly maligned.

As Librarian of Congress he exemplified as well as encouraged the highest scholarly standards. At the same time, he threw open the big bronze doors to let in the widest possible readership. From the time of my own arrival in Washington to run the [Woodrow] Wilson [International] Center [for Scholars] until the time I was chosen to succeed him at the Library, he was a very special example, helpmate and friend.

Plato said that immortality lies in one’s children and one’s books. Dan and his incomparable wife and effervescent editorial collaborator, Ruth, have opened both of those pathways to an undying legacy. His outstanding children have spoken today; and a great extended family of readers yet unborn will be benefiting from his books in the years to to come.

He was a man of the book, a gift to America from the people of the book. His bibliography itself fills a book. He founded and was a benefactor to the Center for the Book within the world’s greatest collection of books at the Library of Congress; and it now has — thanks to John Cole, whom he appointed to head it — “affiliated” Centers for the Book in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Dan was concerned not just about illiteracy but also about alliteracy — a term he coined to describe those people who can read but have lost the will to do so. And he launched the plan and gained the Congressional support to restore the Thomas Jefferson Building to its true glory as America’s temple of the book.

When he was sworn in in November 1975 as the 12th Librarian of Congress in the Great Hall of that magnificent building, he spoke these prophetic words: “The computer can help us find what we know is there. But the book remains our symbol and our resource for the unimagined question and the unwelcome answer.”

In his last years he crafted a second trilogy of books largely out of what he was fond of calling the “multimedia encyclopedia” that was and is the Library of Congress. He ended up in his personal note to readers in the last volume, “The Seekers,” asking a question that lay beyond all the unwelcome answers. Has Western man, he asked, emptied meaning from life by moving from seeking purposes to seeking causes — from deeply wondering why to simply asking how? Books and family gave meaning and purpose to the rich life of this man — as they do to the American culture that he loved and ennobled.

Marjorie and I — like so many of his fond admirers — will miss him and the infectious enthusiasm for learning that he miraculously sustained for nearly nine decades. We will always be grateful for the friendship and support that he and Ruth so generously and warmly extended to us and to the amazing institution in which we have been privileged to succeed him.

James H. Billington is the Librarian of Congress.