In a kingdom of books, nation’s librarian champions digital age

Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington, Billy Joel, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (left to right) pose for a photograph after a ceremony awarding the 2014 Gershwin Prize to Billy Joel at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 19, 2014.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington, Billy Joel, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. (left to right) pose for a photograph after a ceremony awarding the 2014 Gershwin Prize to Billy Joel at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 19, 2014. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The setting was certainly regal: the ornamental hall of the Library of Congress’ Beaux Arts-style Thomas Jefferson Building.

So were the trappings: a band of trumpeters at each interior arch, with red herald banners hanging from their instruments, and choirs on each staircase.

And so was the honoree: Britain’s Princess Anne, the Princess Royal, who was at the event last month to lend the library, for an exhibition, one of just four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta, the historic 1215 document that is the basis for Western legal rights.

Princess Anne was the reason for all the pomp and circumstance. But the distinguished white-haired man sitting next to her at the ceremony was the one who made it happen, who makes everything happen at the Library of Congress, James H. Billington.

For more than 25 years, Billington has been the librarian of Congress, a title that sounds rarefied, which, in fact, it is; only a dozen others have held the post since the library began in 1800.

In the age of the Internet, it also might sound somewhat dated. Yet the 85-year-old scholar has been one of the country’s most aggressive advocates, moving the resources of the library online and expanding its educational outreach through 21st century technology.

“It’s the greatest revolution since the invention of moveable type and the printing press,” said Billington, who championed the World Digital Library, which began linking libraries around the world in 2009. “This was big.”

Billington is, quite simply, a keeper of American culture, not just the keeper of books. He is charged with preserving the past while also expanding the library’s reach by keeping it tune with the moment – in music, in film, in various forms of human literary and artistic expression.

Indeed, the Library of Congress holds for more than 23 million books, more than 13 million monographs and serials, music, newspapers and other printed material, plus more than 100 million items in the special collections.

“It’s the closest thing we have to the national patrimony of intellectual and cultural creativity of the people of the United States,” Billington said during an interview with McClatchy in his top-floor office in the library’s James Madison Memorial Building, with sweeping views of the city.

Last month he presided over the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, awarded to musician Billy Joel at a raucous, pop star-filled concert. This week he announced 25 additions to the National Film Registry, the library’s initiative to preserve American cinema. New entries on the list include iconic movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“We’re really in the education business,” Billington said. “Lifelong learning is our brand new theme.”

Unlike most libraries, books and materials in Billington’s collection do not circulate. But visitors with reader identification cards (available to anyone with a government-issued ID) can ask for and review books and documents in the Jefferson Building’s enormous Main Reading Room. The room is quite familiar to moviegoers who have seen “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” and “All the President’s Men.”

One sign that pop culture sees the library as something other than a dusty, book-lined repository is a new TNT series, “The Librarians,” which revolves around a group of people at a Library of Congress-like facility who have powers to protect valuable artifacts from evil-doers.

Billington doesn’t possess super powers, but his domain is spread among three buildings on Capitol Hill, across the street from the U.S Capitol, and a satellite facility in rural Virginia. Paid an annual salary of $178,700, he has been a force behind library-sponsored events like the National Book Festival – former first lady Laura Bush had the original idea and was a pivotal player – and gives awards celebrating American creativity.

He oversees the cultural center where the Magna Carta, on loan from Lincoln Cathedral in England for the “Great Charter’s” 800-year anniversary, is on display. The exhibition, through Jan. 19, also will display pieces from the library’s own collection, including George Washington’s annotated draft of the U.S. Constitution.

“Jim has done a spectacular job in reinventing the job of librarian of Congress,” said David Rubenstein, the new chairman of the library’s main fundraising arm, the James Madison Council, a group of wealthy donors created by Billington in 1990 to raise funds and acquire items for the library.

The council has raised more than $218 million since then. Its members have also acquired valuable items and loaned them to the library.

“He’s opened the library up – it was somewhat more cloistered before – by making it accessible and digitizing the collection,” Rubenstein said. “He’s as good a librarian as we’ve ever had.”

Rubenstein, who gave $10 million to launch the book festival, is the billionaire co-CEO of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based private equity firm and among the city’s most prominent cultural benefactors. He previously purchased a later 1297 copy of the Magna Carta that is on display at the National Archives.

Billington is a slightly built man who, once he starts speaking, barely stops to take a breath. A lifelong academic, his background is as an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union. He speaks the language and has written five books, mostly about Russia. His “Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith,” was a National Book Award nominee. He also wrote and narrated a PBS documentary on Russia and has traveled with congressional delegations to the country, and he accompanied President Ronald Reagan to the 1988 nuclear summit in Moscow

Billington has degrees from Princeton University and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar. He served in the U.S. Army and then taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 before returning to Princeton to teach. He also served as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars from 1973 to 1987 before being given the lifetime appointment at the library by Reagan in 1987.

From his glass-enclosed corner office, Billington points out his favorite landmark, the Russian Embassy, on the other side of town. Outside his suite are two gems from the library, giant glass-enclosed ancient globes of the world, as large as a person.

Despite his success and the glamor of the events and people around him, Billington is very modest.

“I don’t spend all my time with royalty,” he said.

While he enjoyed the Magna Carta event with Princess Anne – “this was quite special” – he points to his humble beginnings in the Philadelphia area. During the Great Depression, his father would bring home used books that cost 5 cents to reward his children.

“Our house always had books – used books,” he said.

George Tobolowsky, a Dallas entrepreneur, sculptor and new member of the James Madison Council, a private-sector group created to serve as the library’s primary link to the business community, called Billington the “walking knowledge of so many different topics.” A collector of maps, Tobolowsky said the library’s move to puts its map collection online “has just been incredible.”

The centerpiece of the library, though, is Thomas Jefferson’s personal library. The nation’s third president sold his private library of 6,487 books to Congress in 1815 for $23,950 to re-establish the Library of Congress after the British burned the Capitol in 1814. A fire in 1851 destroyed much of the collection, leading to the construction of a new library and the Jefferson Building.

Billington led an effort to reconstruct Jefferson’s library with volumes contemporary to the ones that burned. Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones and his wife, Gene Jones, gave $1 million to the effort in 2000 timed to the Library of Congress’ 200th anniversary.

“After we initially got involved with the Madison Council, Jim Billington became the principle reason that our interest in the Library of Congress intensified,” Jerry Jones told McClatchy via email. “His dynamic and passionate leadership inspired us to complete the restoration of the Jefferson Library, and we are so grateful that he is the steward for this great American institution.”

Jones, a colorful team owner who has won the Super Bowl three times, nonetheless said that his and his wife’s involvement with the library “has been truly one of our most rewarding experiences of our lives.”

Billington said his mission is to continue to make the vast trove assigned to his care more accessible to the public. He’s also excited about new undertakings, such as the collaboration with photographer Carol Highsmith to document life in every state in 21st century America. She just finished the Texas portion of the project, which is expected to take 16 years.

Billington said he is in good health and has no plans to retire anytime soon. The Magna Carta event with Princess Anne symbolized in many ways what his role, as librarian of Congress, is all about.

The British delegation held an “entrusting ceremony” giving him the key to the case that held the historic document. To Billington, that summed up his job: to be entrusted with the protection, preservation and promotion of his own country’s cultural heritage.

CORRECTION: An earlier version said Thomas Jefferson was the fourth president; he was the third.