James Hadley Billington was sworn in as Librarian of Congress on September 14, 1987. He is the 13th person to hold the position since the library was established in 1800.
Billington has championed the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library program, which makes freely available online more than 31.4 million American historical and cultural documents from the vast collections of the library and other research institutions on the library's website at www.loc.gov. These one-of-a-kind American memory materials and the library’s other Internet services, including THOMAS (a congressional database) and, information from the U.S. Copyright Office, are widely used in K-12 education.
The Library of Congress has placed online under Billington's leadership a major bilingual website with Russian libraries and has launched smaller such joint projects with the national libraries of Brazil, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Egypt. His proposal in 2005 for the creation of a World Digital Library was endorsed by UNESCO in 2007 and launched online at www.wdl.org in April 2009. The site contains cultural materials from all 193 countries in UNESCO with expert commentary in seven languages.
Billington created the library’s first national private-sector advisory and support group, the James Madison Council. Its members have supported major exhibitions there as well as well as important new acquisitions for its collections. In 2000, the library’s bicentennial year, Madison Council's Founding Chairman John W. Kluge donated $60 million to create a scholarly center within the library and a million-dollar prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity. In 2007, David Woodley Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute made the largest philanthropic gift in the library’s history, funding a National Audio-Visual Conservation Center for the Library’s unmatched collections of moving images and recorded sound.
Born in Bryn Mawr, Pa., on June 1, 1929, Billington was educated in the public schools of the Philadelphia area. He was class valedictorian at both Lower Merion High School and Princeton University, where he graduated with highest honors in 1950. Three years later, he earned his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College. Following service with the U.S. Army and in the Office of National Estimates, he taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962 and subsequently at Princeton University, where he was professor of history from 1964 to 1973.
From 1973 to 1987, Billington was director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the nation’s official memorial in Washington to America’s 28th president. As director, he founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the center and seven other new programs as well as the Wilson Quarterly.
Billington is the author of Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism (1956), The Icon and the Axe (1966), Fire in the Minds of Men (1980), Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, August 1991 (1992), The Face of Russia (1998)—a companion book to the three-part television series of the same name, which he wrote and narrated for the Public Broadcasting Service—and Russia in Search of Itself (2004). These books have been translated and published in a variety of languages. Billington has accompanied 10 congressional delegations to Russia and the former Soviet Union. In June 1988, he accompanied President and Mrs. Reagan to the Soviet Summit in Moscow. He is the founding chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Open World Leadership Center (1999-2011). The Open World Program is a nonpartisan initiative of the U.S. Congress that has brought more than 14,000 emerging young Russian political leaders to communities throughout America, and more than 3,000 others from Ukraine and seven other successor states of the former Soviet Union.
In October 2004, Billington headed a Library of Congress delegation to Tehran, Iran, that significantly expanded exchanges between the Library of Congress and the National Library of Iran. Billington was the most senior U.S. government official to openly visit Iran in 25 years.
Billington has received more than 40 honorary doctorates, including from the University of Tbilisi in Georgia (1999), the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow (2001), and the University of Oxford (2002). He also has been awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University (1992), the UCLA Medal (1999), the Pushkin Medal of the International Association of the Teachers of Russian Language and Culture (2000), the Karamzin Prize (2005) from the Foreign Literature Library in Moscow, and the Likhachev Prize (2006) from the Likhachev Foundation in St. Petersburg. In 2007, Billington was awarded the inaugural Lafayette Prize by the French-American Cultural Foundation and the EastWest Institute Outstanding Leadership Award. He was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bush in 2008.
Billington is a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He has been decorated as Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, as Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the president of France, and as Commander of the National Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil. He has been awarded the Order of Merit of Italy, a Knight Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany, the Gwanghwa Medal by the Republic of Korea, and the Chingiz Aitmatov Gold Medal by the Kyrgyz Republic. In 2008, Billington was awarded the Order of Friendship by the president of the Russian Federation; the highest state order that a foreign citizen may receive.
Billington was a longtime member of the editorial advisory boards of Foreign Affairs and Theology Today, and a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships (1971-76)—as well as its chairman (1973-75)—which has executive responsibility for academic exchanges worldwide under the Fulbright-Hays Act. He is a member of the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Billington is married to the former Marjorie Anne Brennan. They have four children: Susan Billington Harper, Anne Billington Fischer, the Rev. James Hadley Billington Jr,. and Thomas Keator Billington as well as 12 grandchildren.