February 17, 2018

Librarian of Congress James Billington Announces Upcoming Retirement

Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis.

James H. Billington, who has served as the 13th Librarian of Congress since he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, announced on June 10 that he would retire effective January 1, 2016.

Billington informed president Barack Obama and congressional leadership of his plans to step down, and recorded a brief video to share with Library of Congress (LC) coworkers and staff. “Leading this great one-of-a-kind institution alongside all of you for nearly three decades has been the great honor and joy of my 42 years of public service in Washington, DC,” he stated.

A scholar of Russian studies, Billington graduated from Princeton University with honors and received his doctorate from Oxford. He taught history at both Harvard and Princeton, and served as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC from 1973 until his appointment as Librarian of Congress.

During his almost three decades at the helm of LC, Billington, who turned 86 on June 1, has overseen many changes to both the institution’s framework and its public face. The library’s collection has nearly doubled, and Billington himself raised half a billion dollars in private sector donations. LC moved decisively into the digital age during his tenure, launching a number of online multimedia cultural heritage and primary source collections.

Recently, however, LC has come under fire for its lack of coherent information technology (IT) oversight, particularly due to the findings of a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). Billington’s management and communication style also drew criticism, both within the report and in subsequent media coverage.

INFRASTRUCTURE CRITIQUES

LC is the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States, established in 1800 by then-president John Adams. It provides Congress with research and legal advice as well as serving as the de facto national library of the United States, and runs the United States Copyright Office, which was established in 1870.

While at the helm of LC, Billington established the American Memory Project in 1990; the online legislative information source Thomas.gov in 1995 (which became Congress.gov in 2014); LC’s National Digital Library, its collection of digitized primary source American historical material, in 1995, which eventually became its Digital Collections; and the World Digital Library in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2009. Under his leadership, LC was an early adopter of social media, launching its first blog in 2007 and creating the Library of Congress Flickr Commons in 2008. The metadata bibliographic description framework BIBFRAME was developed in-house in 2011.

Yet in spite of LC’s work to increase accessibility and establish an online presence, Billington’s announcement came on the heels of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that was sharply critical of LC’s IT management. The report, released in March, was the result of a yearlong investigation that was commissioned to satisfy the requirements of the House Appropriations Committee’s report, which accompanied the 2015 legislative branch appropriations bill.

GAO’s observations reviewed LC’s regulations, policies, procedures, plans, and other relevant documentation in the areas of strategic planning; investment management; information security and privacy; and service management. The report also addressed inadequacies in LC’s leadership—specifically that it has had no permanent CIO since 2012, and five temporary CIOs in the interim. GAO recommended that LC hire a permanent CIO, along with some 30 additional recommendations aimed at IT practices.

LC’s digital strategy has been the subject of several reviews over the years. In 2000 the National Academy of Sciences issued a 284-page report that outlined needed changes such as technology infrastructure upgrades; determination of collection policies; and the development of a system for the U.S. Copyright Office to ingest and process born-digital materials. In addition, the report directed the Librarian to hire a CIO to manage the entire IT system. At that time Billington created the Office of Strategic Initiatives and appointed Elizabeth Scheffler to serve as LC’s de facto CIO, although the position had no authority over the library’s other units. In 2009 an inspector general’s report offered similar findings.

LC has stated that it will complete a new strategic plan for the next five years in September 2015, and plans to hire a permanent CIO.

The U.S. Copyright Office was also the subject of a GAO investigation in March. In June, Congresswoman Judy Chu (CA-27) and Congressman Tom Marino (PA-10) drafted reform legislation that would potentially establish the Copyright Office as an entity independent of LC and report directly to the legislative branch.

While it is unclear how Billington’s eventual resignation will affect any possible enactment of such legislation, Kevin L. Smith, director of copyright & scholarly communication at Duke University Libraries, stated, “In light of the recent discussions about moving the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress, I think it will be important for the new Librarian to make the case for the central place of libraries in the copyright bargain and in discussions of how to update copyright law for the digital age. That key role has been recognized by lawmakers, and in the text of the law, for centuries, and seems more important than ever as libraries and the Librarian of Congress lead the way into a digital future.”

CONFIDENCE ON THE WAY OUT

“I have never had more faith in the leadership and staff of the Library of Congress,” Billington stated in his farewell message. “The Library’s new top management team is as deeply experienced and creatively collegial as any I have ever known. I am confident that they will continue to innovate, adapt, and improve on the work we have all undertaken during my time as Librarian of Congress.”

Billington also added, “Over the years I have been asked if I have been thinking about retirement; and the answer has always been ‘not really,’ because this has always been not just my job but my life. And my thoughts have always been focused on its future.” In particular, he said, he wished to thank LC staff and also Congress, for its continued bipartisan support—which was evident in the comments and good wishes on Capitol Hill following the announcement of his retirement.

Democrat House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said in response, “Dr. James Hadley Billington’s unwavering commitment to scholarship helped steer the Library of Congress into the 21st century.  For Dr. Billington, the pursuit of knowledge has been a life-long endeavor that is both integral to enriching our nation’s democracy and engaging with people across the nation and around the world.” She added, “Because Dr. Billington knows that the dynamism of our democracy rests on our ability to connect with others, he has been on the forefront of creative programs for our nation’s premier library: expanding outreach and educational resources to researchers, historians, students, visitors, and underserved groups.”

Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell noted, “Rarely do you meet one man who can say he’s been a Princeton valedictorian, a Harvard professor, a Rhodes Scholar, an expert on the Kremlin, and a veteran, but that’s Dr. Billington—and he’s got more than 40 honorary doctorates to top it off.”

The Librarian of Congress is appointed by the acting president and confirmed by the Senate. President Obama now has roughly six months to consider potential nominees. According to InfoDocket, if a new Librarian of Congress is not confirmed by the time Billington steps down in January, Deputy Librarian David Mao would serve as acting Librarian of Congress until a new leader is confirmed by the Senate. Mao holds both legal and library degrees; it should be noted that, of the 13 men who have served as Librarian of Congress, only two—Herbert Putnam (1899­–1939) and Lawrence Quincy Mumford (1954–74)—had library experience or a library science degree before taking the position.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie Chavez says:

    Where are all the comments at! Maybe they were all negative? This is mildly exciting! Only mild excitement because as many government positions similiar to this, it isn’t about library credentials or library experience but politics and glad handing. But who knows, things could change!