James H. Billington, my friend and the man who put the Library of Congress online has passed away.

Photo: Mickey Hart and Dr. Oliver Sacks visiting the The Library of Congress with Dr. James Billington.

I’ll miss Dr. James Billington, who was a good friend for many years, and passed a few days ago. He was the Librarian of Congress, and a colossal presence with extraordinary vision. An explorer of knowledge, Jim helped to bring the The Library of Congress online, allowing access to the world’s greatest collection of media. He envisioned a Digital Alexandria, a portal to the greatest treasure trove of knowledge in the world that could be used to spread information to everyone, everywhere, at the touch of a keypad. His energy was contagious.

Jim was a Russian scholar, and we shared stories and our love of the great bells of Russia over the years. It was this mutual enthusiasm that was the source of our friendship, would be our common denominator, and led to his support of the creation of the Endangered Music Project within the American Folklife Center. He supported this effort to preserve the world’s vanishing music through digital transfer of cylinders, tape and other degrading media into a series that was embraced by many, and provided benefits to the cultures that created them.

Bon Voyage Jim, and thank you for your vision, your friendship and for all your incredible contributions to this world.

Learn more about James from the many outlets celebrating his life.



At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the young Billington was captivated by an exhibit on the Soviet Union’s grandiose engineering plans. During World War II, a Russian acquaintance recommended that he read “War and Peace.” “After that, no book seemed too long,” Dr. Billington told The Washington Post years later. “Also it persuaded me that you can learn more from yesterday’s book than today’s newspaper. Through reading ‘War and Peace,’ you got the sense that this was a country you could relate to — strong families interacting with big events, families going off to war and so forth. It was happening all around us in America, people going off to war. That gave it sort of a relevance.”




He arrived at the dawn of a new era. The internet was in its infancy, newspapers and printed books were thriving, computers were relatively unsophisticated, and Google, Facebook and Twitter were still over the horizon. For all its millions of books and manuscripts in 450 languages, its 550 miles of shelves and 19 reading rooms, the Library of Congress was terra incognita to most Americans, even to many scholars.




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.”




His vision nearly doubled the library’s catalogue from 85 million items to nearly 160 million when he retired in 2015. His successor, Carla Hayden, was appointed in 2016 by former President Obama and issued a statement offering her condolences Wednesday.
“Dr. Billington has left an indelible legacy on the institution he led passionately for 28 years. With his vigor for philanthropy and tireless efforts to expand the reach and impact of the Library, he achieved so much to advance the Library of Congress as an enduring place for scholars and learners. He will be remembered as a visionary leader, distinguished academic and, most of all, a great American,” Hayden wrote.



Statement from Mrs. Laura W. Bush:
"President Bush and I are saddened to learn that the United States has lost Dr. James Billington. Dr. Billington served as our nation's librarian for 28 years, leading the Library of Congress' transition into the digital age. In 2001, he was instrumental in the creation of the National Book Festival, which has welcomed hundreds of thousands of book lovers to the National Mall and to the Library of Congress. Dr. Billington's 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. President Bush and I send our heartfelt condolences to Dr. Billington's wife Marjorie, and to their four children. He will be missed." 

Statement from Nancy Pelosi, U.S. House Democratic Leader:
"The passing of Dr. James Billington is a profound loss for his family and loved ones as well as for our nation. Over the course of his long and prolific career, Dr. Billington became a tireless steward for American history, helping protect and preserve our nation's most treasured past for generations of Americans. 

"Dr. Billington was a public servant of exceptional intelligence, dedication and vision. His tenure at the Library of Congress saw the doubling of the Library's collection and the beginning of its now vast online resources. Dr. Billington firmly believed that the treasures of American history in his care belonged to the people, and he worked passionately to ensure that Americans across the country could access these priceless collections.

"Whether teaching at Harvard or Princeton, collaborating with experts and academics, or being a trusted teacher and advisor for countless Members of Congress, Dr. Billington was a committed educator. His dedication to expanding the Library's educational programing has allowed a generation of young Americans to discover their love of history and become inspired to engage in our great democratic experiment.

"Our nation has lost a true patriot and one of its most relentless defenders. Dr. Billington's life and remarkable legacy have left an indelible mark on our unique American story, allowing generations of young people to see, experience and learn from the history he so passionately promoted. May it be a small comfort to his loving wife, Marjorie, their children, Susan, Anne, James Jr., and Thomas, and the entire Billington family that so many mourn with them at this difficult time."

Statement from Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice:
"I am deeply saddened by the news of Dr. Jim Billington's passing.  He was an original — brilliant, thoughtful and kind. He led the Library of Congress with skill and passion. On a personal note, he was a great role model for me as a scholar and a public servant. His timeless work, The Icon and the Axe is quite literally the book that drew this failed music major to the study of the Soviet Union. Such was the reach of his influence in the field. I join all of his friends and colleagues in sending my thoughts and prayers to Marjorie and the Billington family."

Statement of Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs, The New Schooland the granddaughter of Leonid Khrushchev, the eldest son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
"Dr Billington was such a towering figure in the Russian studies and in the field of the US-Russian relations that he would be thoroughly missed for decades to come. In his work, either as a scholar or a librarian of Congress, he brilliantly merged art and politics, all for the purposes of the United States better understanding and appreciating other cultures around the globe. Russia, his area of expertise, was particularly lucky. James Billington's book, The Icon and the Axe, was itself an icon for the generations of both the Russians and the Russianists. In the dark days of the Soviet Union we, the Russians, tried to understand our own culture through Dr. Billington's critical, knowledgeable and kind eye. At the same time, his philosophical and historical approach to the complex country of bombs, ballet and Brothers Karamazov became a road map for the study of Russian culture and politics for many scholars following in his steps. May his soul rest in peace."

Statement of David M. Rubenstein on the Passing of Dr. James Billington November 21, 2018:
"Jim Billington was one of the finest public servants – indeed one of the finest Americans – I have ever been privileged to meet. His dedication to our country, and in the last three decades of his life to the Library of Congress, places all Americans his debt. Jim helped transform the Library of Congress into the library of the American people – a national treasure available to and benefiting all Americans. Those of us who were fortunate to know and work with him will miss him dearly."