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The Federal Coach
Posted at 01:16 PM ET, 08/18/2011

Librarian of Congress James Hadley Billington on leading the nation’s library


James Hadley Billington is the 13th Librarian of Congress. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
James Hadley Billington has been the Librarian of Congress for nearly a quarter of a century and is the 13th person in the position since 1800, when the institution was created. He has championed the Library of Congress’ "American Memory" National Digital Library program, which makes available online millions of American historical items from the Library of Congress’ collections and other research institutions. His proposal for a World Digital Library became a reality in 2009 with an online site containing cultural materials from all 192 countries in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with expert commentary in seven languages.

How do you keep employees motivated and engaged in the Library of Congress’ work?

It's only possible, at the nation's oldest federal cultural institution, if you really believe in the mission and have no other agenda but its success. You become an advocate recognized as sincere and not merely using the position as a stepping stone to other things or a way of establishing yourself as a personality.

There are two elements in advocating the basic mission. First, choose innovative ways to advance that mission — something nobody else is doing or can do as well as your institution can. The other is to emphasize people. Nearly two-thirds of our budget is for our own people who are bringing to life knowledge that other people everywhere have recorded and are preserving. We are promoting the closest thing anywhere to a mint record of the cultural creativity of the American people. We have set up leadership development programs, and I try to participate in their graduation ceremonies, at events recognizing lengths of service, and in community programs such as our National Book Festival and the Combined Federal Campaign.

What are the most important elements of success for a federal leader?

You have to convey that you are interested in what people are doing and appreciate their work whenever you get the chance. Our work is all service, to both Congress and the American people, but our employees don't always get the thanks that they deserve. On the elevator, I typically ask two questions: What's your greatest satisfaction? What's your biggest frustration? People have to know you really believe passionately in them and their work.

The Library of Congress has a slightly aging workforce and many one-of-a-kind jobs. In planning for this, we hosted a National Mentoring Society conference, and we are trying to adopt techniques so that the unique knowledge stored in a staff member over a long period of service to the Library is not lost or translated into some cookie-cutter bureaucratic category. Experience needs to be imparted to someone who is just beginning by someone who has worked for a number of years.

What benefits can federal leaders realize from working with private-sector partners?

The Congress of the United States has been the greatest patron of a library in human history. For 211 years, Congress has supported and sustained what has become the largest and most wide-range library in the world. But if you want to innovate and move quickly in changing times, private-sector support is very important. The Library had received donations, but never substantially raised funds or had a development office until we created the James Madison Council in the 1990s, the Library’s first-ever national private-sector advisory and support group. It is not a substitute for congressional support, but a way of supplementing it.

When we set up the National Digital Library, which now has online 16 million primary documents of American history and culture, our Madison Council helped to fund it and to ensure that it had measurable results and an educational impact. The council also helped us launch the National Book Festival and major exhibitions. The Madison Council helped us to get started rapidly on innovation. We get good advice, feedback and considerable strategic support from its members.

How have you incorporated Web 2.0 into the Library of Congress?

A famous French saying translates to, "You engage and then you're able to see." We jump in before we have all the answers, because there's no point in having endless theoretical discussions without being involved. We were among the first federal organizations to have a blog site. We've had considerable success identifying photographs by putting them on Flickr. We reach out through Twitter, Facebook and iTunes U. The digital world represents an extension, not a revision, of our historic mission. It is absolutely essential that we maintain and promote the values of the book culture even as we add new media to the national collection and to our outreach services.

Who have been your leadership role models and what have you learned?

The most important is my father, who never had the benefit of a higher education, but imparted to me the importance of learning and the love of reading. It is a privilege to do some things that your father might be proud of even if he never got to see them. When National Geographic asked about the seven libraries that influenced me most, I said that the most important in my life was the Nelson Billington Library: the random books that my father bought, read and shared in the house that he loved. His library and his own way of using language set me off on everything else.

More from On Leadership:

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How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

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By  |  01:16 PM ET, 08/18/2011

 
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