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Librarian of Congress to Retire

Billington will retire in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Billington will retire in 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The longtime librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, announced Wednesday that he will retire from his post, effective Jan. 1.  

“Over the years I have been asked if I have been thinking about retiring; and the answer has always been ‘not really,’ because this library has always been not just my job, but my life,” Billington said in a video to the Library. “However, I have never had more faith in the leadership and staff of the Library of Congress. The ibrary’s new top management team is as deeply experienced, and creatively collegial, as any I have ever known, and I am confident that they will continue to innovate, adapt and improve on the work we have undertaken during my time as Librarian of Congress.”
Billington, 86, is the 13th librarian of Congress, and first took charge of one of the largest libraries in the world in 1987, after being nominated by President Ronald Reagan. President Barack Obama will appoint Billington’s successor, who must also be confirmed by the Senate. The octogenarian is also a Russian scholar and oversaw the library as it transitioned to digital technologies. According to the statement announcing his retirement, the library’s collection size nearly doubled during his 28-year tenure.  

It also noted that one of the “most dramatic” changes under Billington’s leadership was adding a new digital library while maintaining traditional materials, which was also accomplished “despite a 30 percent reduction in staff since the Library began its digital innovations.”  

With shrinking budgets in recent years, the Library of Congress has had to adjust to a shrinking staff . It also faced challenges in implementing digital technology, which were highlighted by a recent Government Accountability Office report citing “management weaknesses” in the information technology divisions.  

“The Library is not in a position to ensure that they are meeting cost, schedule and performance goals and delivering the capabilities the agency needs to carry out its mission,” the report’s authors stated.  

The authors found the library’s IT systems were at risk of infiltration because the library did not always test security, assess risks or carry out training. “Such deficiencies also contributed to weaknesses in technical security controls, putting the Library’s systems and information at risk of compromise,” they wrote.  

Billington and his staff subsequently pledged to develop a strategic plan and follow through on several of the recommendations from the GAO.  

In the video to staff , Billington thanked members of Congress for their “continued bipartisan support” and his wife of nearly 60 years, Marjorie.  

Billington also said he would try to visit each library staff member over the next six months, as he did when he first became librarian nearly 30 years ago.  

“I want to tell each of you how much I have valued and trusted your work, your judgment, your honesty and your dedication to the future of this great library,” he said.  

Billington received some congressional accolades as news of his retirement spread Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a statement, “I join the rest of the Senate in wishing the very best to the Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, in retirement. Rarely do you meet one man who can say he’s been a Princeton valedictorian, a Harvard professor, a Rhodes Scholar, an expert on the Kremlin, and a veteran, but that’s Dr. Billington — and he’s got more than 40 honorary doctorates to top it off. I know he’s proud of his many initiatives to expand the reach and relevance of a library he’s referred to as the ‘greatest collection of knowledge and copyrighted creativity in human history.’”  

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also applauded Billington. “Dr. James Hadley Billington’s unwavering commitment to scholarship helped steer the Library of Congress into the 21st century,” she said in a statement. Pelosi later added, “Dr. Billington has demonstrated outstanding leadership and has been a tremendous asset to the Congress and our country.”

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