An International Hero, An International Treasure

An International Hero, An International Treasure April 15, 2015

Coming down to earth in Washington, DC, is being hit on a regular basis with mean media takedowns of leaders you deeply admire and would like to emulate. In this case, I write of the great Librarian of Congress of our generation, James Billington, who has invented something wonderfully new for the distinguished Library of Congress, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and designed to be, eventually, as close a peer of the Vatican Library as can be brought into being.

Out of the vast records and documents accumulated by the Vatican Library over many, many centuries – records from myriad cultures, ancient and new – were constructed something close to ten new modern sciences, from astronomy to botany to zoology. Nowhere else were there so many records of specimens on which to conduct systematic inquiry.

To the great early work of the Library of Congress from 1800 until 1987, when Billington was made the thirteenth Librarian of Congress, Billington has brought an entirely new dimension. He began a huge, visionary project – to digitalize as many of the works of the LOC as possible, and to make the U.S. Library of Congress the international hub of a vast new digital network of human knowledge.

As a book person, I didn’t in Billington’s early days grasp what this would mean. Then, just watching the first photographic archives of American history the LOC put online (to be made available in classrooms all around the nation), I was stunned to be able to look up contemporaneous photos of some great events of American history of personal interest to me. I was carried away by photos, for example, of the wreckage from the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and of the humble, almost rural, appearance of the city of Atlanta in 1864 just before Sherman marched in. Atlanta looked more like a sleepy village in those photos than like the great modern city of today.

Librarian of Congress Billington and son James. Used with permission.
Librarian of Congress Billington and son James. Photo used with permission.

I was blown away by the capacities of the internet. And by the power of old photos and letters to evoke concrete detail worth thousands of words. Librarian of Congress Billington had grasped this new potency immediately. Many of us had not.

Now, thirty years later, the Librarian of Congress has linked the Library of Congress to national libraries in Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and the Vatican Library.

More than that, our national Librarian has persuaded UNESCO to adopt as its goal the linking of all the national libraries of the world in one international network of global archives and global knowledge. [See the World Digital Library at] This site features materials from all 193 countries in UNESCO.

A modest man, James Billington never sought recognition for opening up these previously unimagined possibilities. In fact, no leader of any department of government has managed its IT capacities with the same far-seeing and large-visioned advancement as our own national Librarian. No one has matched the LOC’s unprecedented links to all the other libraries of the world. Thanks to James Billington, the LOC is a now more than ever the greatest library of the world.

* * *

There is another achievement of James Billington that deserves the esteem of the whole American people: Over the past forty years, no one in America has shown more perspicacity in grasping what was happening on the ground in Russia, not only in the former Soviet government, but also in the Russian Orthodox church and its vast institutions and local parishes and, most astonishing, within the Soviet Politburo itself and the growing number of spiritual and religious conversions occurring among its own sons and daughters even in the 1980s. Ever since his great book on the origins of socialism, Fire in the Minds of Men, only James Billington has had such deep insight into the mind and soul of the Soviet Union as it approached its collapse, and in today’s Russia such a profound network of information.

Ask any congressman who took one of the many fact-finding trips into the old Soviet Union and now Russia today – ask them – who had a deeper view of life in the Soviet Union than their Librarian, who accompanied them as their chosen sherpa. Ask the staff of any president of the United States since 1987 how valuable to them were the insights and wisdom of Librarian Billington, who often briefed them about out-of-sight changes in Soviet society. Briefed them down to the names and characteristics of individuals with whom he had been in contact for a lifetime.

Is this the time to attack one of the best and most locally grounded scholars of Russia of the last forty years?

Ask yourself, too, who benefits by concerted attacks on Dr. Billington in the press recently. If President Obama were to get his hands of the opportunity to put his own typical nominee into that job – which has lifetime tenure – imagine what a hold he would gain for decades to come on the world’s premier source of knowledge about human cultures on earth.

Today, the business of the United States with Russia is far from done. So imagine, too, the loss of the fingertip knowledge of Librarian of Congress Billington concerning life on the ground in Russia today, and the torments of the Russian soul during this decade. The fate of Russia and America is not less important today than a decade ago, but far more important – and dangerous – and in need of delicate guidance. This is no time to lose James Billington.

Coming down to earth in DC means watching the political ambition of lesser men snaking around to bring down those of high nobility of character and great historic achievement.


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