Congress’s librarian contemplative at 80

The British ambassador and almost 100 guests celebrated the 80th birthday of Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington on Monday night. Politicians, diplomats and intellectuals from the United States and across the pond feted the guest of honor over dinner and drinks in the ambassador’s dining room and rose garden.

Since Billington took his post in 1987, he has increased the library’s international collection and established programs for American politicians and judges to work with their counterparts in emerging democracies, attendees said. Former Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa) gave the evening’s main address, saying, “I don’t think anyone in the world stands more for trying to build bridges between societies.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called Billington “one of the most respected people in the world.” Under Billington’s stewardship, the Library of Congress reached new heights in cataloging international history, LaHood said.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that of the many impressive moments from Billington’s 20-plus years at the Library of Congress, one in particular stands out. When considering the purchase of a collection of Hebrew writings, Billington showed poise working with a difficult negotiator.

“I was struck by how this man — intellectual, soft touch — was able to be in communication with a guy I thought was very hard,” the senator said.

Billington’s host trumpeted his ties to England.

“I won’t disguise the fact that there is a British dimension to this evening,” Ambassador Nigel Sheinwald said in a toast. He noted that Billington, a Rhodes scholar, earned his doctorate at Oxford’s Balliol College, the ambassador’s alma mater.

Billington, prompted to say a few words, described the party as a humbling experience. He called the evening a chance to “think for a moment about culture, about building bridges, and the special bridge we’ve always had with the British.” Asked about his favorite accomplishment at the library, Billington pointed to the increased use of the institution’s primary documents by teachers and students.

While most of the night’s praise was directed toward Billington, the massive library on Independence Avenue is much loved in itself. LaHood called it the most beautiful building on Capitol Hill.

Lautenberg, too, has a fondness for the stacks.

“I would hate to see an Internet replacement for the Library of Congress,” Lautenberg said.