Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington at the 2006 National Book Festival. (Photo by John Harrington)

James H. Billington, the brilliant but mercurial head of the Library of Congress, will retire after 28 years at the helm of an institution that has expanded its reach across the country but struggled to stay ahead in a rapidly changing digital world.

Billington, 86, is a Russia scholar who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 as the 13th Librarian of Congress and leader of the oldest federal cultural institution. In a video message to his staff, he said he will leave Jan. 1.

“Leading this great institution alongside all of you for nearly three decades has been the honor and joy of my 42 years of public service in Washington,” he said. “Over the years I have been asked if I have been thinking about retirement and the answer has always been ‘not really’ because this library has always been not just my job but my life.”

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His decision comes months after a scathing government report about the technological failures at the Library that blamed him for problems that wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress is a $630 million operation with 3,200 employees that serves as the research arm of Congress, provides Congress legal advice and runs the Copyright Office, a major player in the world’s digital economy.

The reaction inside the library was almost gleeful, as one employee joked that some workers were thinking of organizing a conga line down Pennsylvania Avenue. Another said it felt like someone opened a window.

“There is a general sense of relief, hope and renewal, all rolled into one feeling,” said one staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Like a great weight has been lifted from our shoulders.”

Maureen Moore, who retired in 2005 but volunteers at the library, said she and her friends were thrilled.

“It’s a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn’t,” she said. “But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn’t a librarian, someone who doesn’t have management experience or another megalomaniac.”

Although Billington has repeatedly ignored Congress’s directives, many Congressional leaders praised his tenure.

“Dr. James Hadley Billington’s unwavering commitment to scholarship helped steer the Library of Congress into the 21st century,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said.

“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.’” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss), vice chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, thanked Billington for his tireless effort.

“I am especially thankful for his work to expand the reach of the library not only outside the Beltway but in particular for making primary source materials available for K-12 educators,” Harper said.

Added Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), “Just like the institution he has led for decades, Dr. Billington is national treasure.”

Billington attended Princeton University, where he graduated as class valedictorian in 1950. He earned his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. After serving in the Army, he taught history at Harvard and Princeton universities, and in 1973 was appointed director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the author of seven books.

Soon after joining the Library, Billington launched several programs to expand its reach. In 1990, he started the American Memory project that made photographs and primary materials available to teachers via CD-ROM. That program later evolved into the National Digital Library. In 1995, he and Congress created Thomas.gov, a searchable online system for bills, floor schedules and committee information.

With first lady Laura Bush’s help, he started the National Book Festival in 2001, a cultural event that has brought more than 1 million visitors to the District.

David Rubenstein, the head of the library’s donor group, the James Madison Council, said Billington will be celebrated for many successes, including the National Book Festival and the fundraising council.

“When the history of the Library of Congress is written, Jim Billington will be regarded as one of its greatest leaders, not only because of his long tenure, but because he opened the library to the public,” he said. “It was previously cloistered and mostly served Congress and researchers. He’s made it the library of the United States, of the nation.”

Critics say Billington allowed the library’s early successes to languish. Thomas.gov was only recently updated, for example, and the digital effort has been slow and limited. He has faced internal strife, too. Maria Pallante, head of the Copyright Office, has lobbied Congress to separate her department from the library, saying its technological problems are hindering her work. The rapid growth of the collection is straining resources and delays in new storage space means books are stored on the floor.

Despite the firestorm around him, Billington insisted as recently as March that he was not considering retiring from his $179,700 position. Appointed by the president but overseen by Congress, the Librarian of Congress is one of the rare executives who doesn’t exit with the outgoing administration. Only two of Billington’s 12 predecessors were replaced by incoming presidents, the last by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Two have died in office.

Billington told the staff he will spend the next six months visiting with them to thank them.

“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.