WASHINGTON — Former Librarian of Congress James Billington, who led the world’s largest library for nearly three decades and brought it into the digital age, has died. He was 89.
Carla Hayden, the current librarian of Congress, praised Billington’s “vigor for philanthropy and tireless efforts to expand the reach and impact of the library.”
Billington, chief librarian for 28 years, doubled the size of the library’s traditional analog collections, from 85.5 million items in 1987 to more than 160 million items. He also was credited with creating a massive new Library of Congress online, making research and legislative databases more easily accessible. He retired in 2015.
The library released its statement about Billington on Wednesday. His family reported that he died Tuesday of complication from pneumonia.
Former first lady Laura Bush, in a statement, credited Billington with being instrumental in creating the National Book Festival, adding that his “lifelong passion for research and for preserving history ensures that America’s most prized literary treasures will be available to all for generations to come.”
Other achievements noted by the library: Billington acquired the only copy of the 1507 Waldseemüller world map (“America’s birth certificate”) in 2003 for permanent display. He reconstructed Thomas Jefferson’s original library and placed it on permanent display in 2008. He obtained a complete copy of the Marquis de Lafayette’s previously inaccessible papers. And he assembled hundreds of other collections from notable Americans such as Thurgood Marshall, Irving Berlin and Jackie Robinson.
The library is the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. It was formed largely from Thomas Jefferson’s collection of books to begin building a national library. It now holds a vast collection of research materials, historical resources and cultural treasures.