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James H. Billington, long-reigning librarian of Congress, dies at 89

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, right, in 2010 with Paul McCartney, recipient of the library’s annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, right, in 2010 with Paul McCartney, recipient of the library’s annual Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

James H. Billington, an eminent American scholar of Russian culture who reigned for three decades as librarian of Congress, propelling the expansion of the world’s largest library but struggling to lead it through the challenges of the digital age, died Nov. 20 at a hospital in Washington. He was 89.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said a son, Thomas K. Billington.

A Rhodes scholar, Ivy League professor and Washington think-tank leader, Dr. Billington was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 as the 13th person to lead the Library of Congress. Created two centuries ago, largely from the personal book collection of President Thomas Jefferson, the institution began as the research arm of the legislative branch and became internationally renowned as a repository of learning and culture.

Tweedy and commanding, Dr. Billington led the library through a period of breathless change, when computers and the Internet came to compete with book stacks and microfilm as storehouses of knowledge. At times, the librarian himself resembled a storehouse of knowledge: He was by all accounts a man of ferocious intellect, with a self-confessed penchant for delivering impromptu professorial lectures.

In 1966, Dr. Billington published a landmark book on Russian culture, “The Icon and the Axe,” that secured his reputation in academia. During the Cold War, the Los Angeles Times reported, Reagan administration officials relied on his expertise in Russian — which he learned as a teenager when he tackled Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” in its original language. A White House speechwriter recalled sprinkling Reagan’s addresses with Russian phrases provided by the librarian of Congress — and not lost on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the library, Dr. Billington found himself at the helm of a $600 million annual budget and more than 3,000 employees. Within his purview were the library’s holdings — including 838 miles of bookshelves and a seemingly unfathomable trove of manuscripts, photographs, maps and recordings — and departments as varied as the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Copyright Office and the American Folklife Center.

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His vision for the library, he said, was that it might be an “active catalyst for civilization,” as opposed to a “passive mausoleum” for dusty volumes.

Under his leadership, the collections blossomed from 85.5 million items when he arrived to 160 million when he announced his departure. In the technological realm, Dr. Billington was credited initially with launching ambitious projects to modernize the library and digitize important holdings as the Internet increasingly transformed scholarship as well as daily life.

By force of his personality, he infused the library with celebrity and recruited a coterie of donors who brought tens of millions of dollars to fund special programs and initiatives that extended the library’s reach in scholarship and culture.

But in the twilight of his career, the perquisites of his fundraising activities drew unflattering attention for their appearance of regalness and exclusivity, and government auditors at the end of his tenure found a library in technological and physical disarray.

In June 2015, after 28 years in the job, Dr. Billington announced that he would retire on Jan. 1, 2016, at 86. He ultimately accelerated his departure, stepping down at the end of September.

At the time of Dr. Billington’s retirement, Congress passed legislation limiting future library chiefs to renewable 10-year terms. He was succeeded by Carla Hayden, the first African American and first woman to hold the post.

'No book seemed too long'

James Hadley Billington was born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on June 1, 1929. His mother was a recipe tester, and he credited his father, an insurance broker who did not have a college education, with cultivating his interest in books.

At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the young Billington was captivated by an exhibit on the Soviet Union’s grandiose engineering plans. During World War II, a Russian acquaintance recommended that he read “War and Peace.”

“After that, no book seemed too long,” Dr. Billington told The Washington Post years later. “Also it persuaded me that you can learn more from yesterday’s book than today’s newspaper. Through reading ‘War and Peace,’ you got the sense that this was a country you could relate to — strong families interacting with big events, families going off to war and so forth. It was happening all around us in America, people going off to war. That gave it sort of a relevance.”

He took Russian language lessons from the widow of a Russian army officer. Through her, he told the publication the Historian, he “imbibed the culture of Imperial Russia.”

He graduated in 1950 from Princeton University, where he was valedictorian and editorial chairman of the Daily Princetonian. Three years later, he received a doctorate from the University of Oxford in England before serving in the Army.

Dr. Billington’s early books included “Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism” (1958), a biography of the 19th-century populist Russian journalist Nicholas Mikhailovsky. He was in his 30s when he wrote “The Icon and the Axe.”

Spanning more than 800 pages, the book was acclaimed for illuminating the complexity of Russian culture at a time when many Westerners viewed the society as the monolithic product of its totalitarian Communist government.

Writing in the New York Times in 1980, Marshall Berman, the philosopher and political scientist, described “The Icon and the Axe” as “probably the single finest American book on Russia and one of the most impressive achievements of American scholarship since the end of World War II.”

Dr. Billington “embraces a thousand years of Russian history without spreading his resources thin,” Berman observed. “His writing at its best is both novelistic, bringing dozens of characters beautifully to life, and poetic, following images into their depths; and it shows how dedication to scholarship can nourish, rather than undermine, the powers of vision and imagination.”

Dr. Billington taught at Harvard University and Princeton before being selected in 1973 to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, where he helped found the Kennan Institute for Russian studies and the well-regarded Wilson Quarterly journal.

Meanwhile, he wrote another celebrated tome, “Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith” (1980), about the spread of ideas across time and hemispheres.

Later volumes included “Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope,” published in 1992, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Dr. Billington’s knowledge made him a sought-after source of information during and after the Cold War. In 1998, he a hosted a three-part PBS series, “The Face of Russia.”

Leadership at the library

At the Library of Congress, he succeeded Daniel J. Boorstin, a historian and writer who had led the institution for 12 years.

One urgent problem Dr. Billington faced was the backlog of 40.5 million items that the library had acquired but not catalogued. He reorganized the staff and, by 1995, had cut the cataloguing backlog by nearly half, The Post reported.

He started the National Digital Library Program and the American Memory project, a repository of primary sources and other materials from U.S. history, and helped create the World Digital Library, an initiative with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to assemble an online collection of historical documents from cultural institutions around the world. The website Thomas, launched in 1995, made the legislative proceedings of Congress searchable online.

His fundraising centered on the establishment in 1990 of the James Madison Council, once described by The Post as “sort of the wealthiest Friends of the Library group in the world.”

A group of private-sector philanthropists, the council contributed nearly $220 million to the library over 25 years and raised more funds from other donors, according to the library. The group helped build the library’s collection, as well as the National Digital Library Program, the National Book Festival in Washington and the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.

In 2000, Dr. Billington obtained a $60 million donation from billionaire John W. Kluge to establish at the library a center for visiting scholars. Also under Dr. Billington’s leadership, the library in 2007 received $155 million from David Woodley Packard, a son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, and the Packard Humanities Institute to fund an audiovisual conservation center in Culpeper, Va.

Those achievements helped Dr. Billington build his reputation as a visionary and passionate promoter of the library’s role in the United States and the world. At the same time, employees described him as a hot-tempered manager, demanding to preview presentations for philanthropists and others and then putting down the employees’ work.

“I got a sense of how frustrated they were,” Karl Schornagel, a former library inspector general, told the Times in 2015, “how he would lash out at people and yell at them and throw things.’’

Dr. Billington said in response, “I only have one way to work, and the way I work is very intensive.”

In 2013, an audit showed that, despite progress in eliminating the cataloguing backlog, millions of holdings still languished in warehouses. Two years later, the Government Accountability Office released a report that cited “widespread weaknesses” and a “lack of strong, consistent leadership” on technology. It faulted Dr. Billington with not hiring a permanent chief technology officer, as mandated by law, and showed that administrators did not know how many computers the library owned or how many information technology systems were in place.

The announcement of his retirement came two months after the release of that report.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, the former Marjorie Brennan of McLean, Va.; four children, Susan Harper of Villanova, Pa., Anne Fischer of San Angelo, Tex., James H. Billington Jr. of Santa Ynez, Calif., and Thomas K. Billington of Chevy Chase, Md.; and 12 grandchildren.

Reflecting on the era in which he led the library, Dr. Billington remarked that “it’s significant that we call it the Information Age” rather than “the Knowledge Age.”

“Our society is basically motion without memory,” he told The Post, “which, of course, is one of the clinical definitions of insanity.”

In books, he saw a remedy.

“We treasure books because they are the individual’s portable, affordable link with the memory, mind and imagination of the rest of humanity,” he once said in a speech, “a moral antidote, if you like, to the creeping passivity, parochialism and shortened attention spans of our video culture.”

He also reflected on the value of silence, such as can be found in a library, where one can be quiet and think.

“This is easier for readers than for viewers,” he said, “for adventurers than for spectators.”

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