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Billington’s Tenure One for the Books

Correction Appended

James Billington’s challenge is to take “the champagne out of the bottle” while “bringing Greece into Rome.”

It’s a goal he has strived to meet during his 20 years as the Librarian of Congress, a milestone that will be reached Friday. Throughout those years, Billington has pushed to make the Library’s collection — the champagne — more available to the public while also bringing more recognition to traditional scholars.

“You have to sustain the value of the book culture in the new digital age,” Billington said in a recent interview. “And that’s not just a sentimental thing by those of us who were brought up with books.”

Throughout his tenure, Billington has seen the Walkman, the CD player, the iPod. He’s seen information storage go from floppy disks to CD-ROMs to MP3s. He’s watched the quick evolution of the Internet and advent of the Google search.

It all presented a challenge to America’s oldest library and the nation’s official preserver of national heritage. The books, recordings, documents and photographs that make up the Library’s collection go back more than 200 years, making the preservation and accessibility of the collection a constantly changing art. Since Billington was sworn in as Librarian of Congress in 1987, the collection has grown from about 86 million items to 135 million, and the budget has increased by more than 200 percent.

And now there’s new things to archive and new ways to do it, said Deanna Marcum, the associate librarian for library services. At every step, she said, Billington has prepared the LOC for the next transformation. One of the current challenges is to capture, authenticate and store Web sites at a Library organized to deal with the “finished products” of books and videos. At the same time, Billington is preparing for a changing work force in the face of technology, Marcum said.

“What I find so really inspiring about his leadership is that he understands that these things are going to be happening at an intuitive level,” she said. “He wouldn’t be able to tell you how the work force needs to be transformed but he knows that that’s our next challenge.”

Billington said he constantly tries to “go out more broadly and in more deeply” — or to spread information to the world while being meticulous about the finances and organization of the Library and its collection.

“The digital age provided the opportunity to go out more broadly with the Library so we were able to take the riches of the institution to a broader audience,” he said. But Billington also sticks by the preservation of a physical library for research and study. “The Internet can be a great entryway, but it’s not a passageway from interest to knowledge and knowledge to wisdom.”

Members who work closely with Billington describe him as a visionary who can balance politics with academics. He is aggressive and tactful in his dealings with Congress, they say, but he also is a scholar who is well versed in history and culture.

“Rarely does anyone combine the intellectual capacity to lead an institution like the Library of Congress and all his academic connections in the world and all philosophical and financial responsibilities and still have a keen sense of the political ramifications of everything done in this city,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), who, as ranking member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch oversees the Library’s budget. “It’s really an extraordinary package of skills that he brings to the table and on top of that he’s just a nice guy.”

More than 3,500 employees gather, sort and preserve the Library’s collection — about 1,200 less than when Billington took up his post. When he first arrived to the Library, its finances were in trouble and its collection was, in some instances, insecure. After requesting an audit and upping security, both are no longer a problem, Billington said. But he is quick to give all the credit to the employees, who he says work long hours and make less money than they would in the private sector.

“I’m just the agent of the Congress in the broader sense and a representative of a staff that is really extraordinary,” he said.

During Billington’s tenure, the Library has launched several programs. A National Digital Library was established in 1995 to put some of the Library’s collection on its Web site. A program called American Memory first distributed CDs full of works and documents to schools around the country and now remains as a subset of the National Digital Library. Congress’ online legislative database, THOMAS, makes bills, committee reports and laws searchable and available to the public.

One of Wamp’s favorites is the Veterans History Project, which captures the stories of war veterans through videotaped interviews and personal correspondence.

“He has reached out and just grasped the heart of America and made it part of the repository of the Library of Congress,” said Wamp.

But the Library of Congress also has offices in countries around the world, acquiring works such as an obscure mimeographed biography of Osama bin Laden and Mayan artifacts. Preserving such heritage, Billington believes, is integral to fostering democracy.

“His work has really advanced the library material in terms of their accessibility, not just nationally but internationally,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), chairwoman of the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “Information and knowledge and learning that the Library can provide to people all over the world is essential.”

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) has known Billington since he was chairman on the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. Billington is not just a political figure but also a scholar, he said. Before a trip to Russia, Bennett said he went to Billington, a leading expert on the country, for advice on Russian culture and politics.

“He is a genuine scholar who can hold his own with a lot of other scholars, which is important in an institution that deals with preservation of scholarly material,” said Bennett, who now serves on the Committee on the Library. But, he said, Billington “has adjusted to that challenge of dealing with political egos quite well.”

Of course, the relationship between the Library and Congress is a tug and pull — money can be tight, and Billington rarely gets all the funding he wants. But Wasserman Schultz and Wamp say that Billington is deferential to Congress’ decision. And any cuts are not from a lack of desire to help the Library and further the work of its employees, Wasserman Schultz said.

“They are passionate advocates about the Library and programs,” she said. “I just hope that our funding availability can match that passion.”

Correction: Sept. 12, 2007

Librarian of Congress James Billington was misquoted in Wednesday’s article “Billington’s Tenure One for the Books.” He said the Library’s goal is to bring “Greece into Rome,” not bring “Greece into the room.”

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