Librarian of Congress has no plans to retire

He moves a little more slowly now, at 82, and gets more questions about whether he’s thinking of retiring, but that seems to be the last thing on James Billington’s mind as he begins his 25th year as the Librarian of Congress.

“I have no plans at this point — sorry to disappoint you,” a reflective Billington said during an hourlong interview with The Hill. “The Lord’s been very kind, and I’m in the middle of a lot of interesting things. And of course, it’s a time when all cultural institutions are facing lots of challenges.”

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Billington, who was sworn in as the 13th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 14, 1987, outlined some of those challenges when asked about the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, given that the Library was the first to publish Osama bin Laden’s autobiography and the first to discover papers that raised concerns about terrorists hijacking airliners.

“Speaking as an American, like all other Americans I share in the horror and outrage and the deep concern and expressions of sympathy, and in the way in which the country was suddenly conscious of fragility when we all thought we were secure,” he said.

“But I think it’s astonishing that America, which has the largest cerebral industry in the history of the world, utterly failed to anticipate either of the three arguably greatest geopolitical phenomena of the last half-century — the explosion of radical Islam, the implosion of the Soviet Union and the meltdown of the great globalized economy that was to create a whole new agenda for the world,” he said.

Billington, who has worked closely with libraries in the Arab world and written five books on Russia, added, “These are three very different phenomena, but they all have in common a tendency to rely on the analysis of things you can quantify, and the neglect of vast areas of human motivation and cultural varieties of experience.

“So I think this is not just a narrow question for academia. … But we tend to have more and more information and even more and more knowledge in separate silos, and not enough integration or enough evaluation of the information … in the thing which this country was largely created, which you might call practical wisdom.”

Seated in his office on the top floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, with its panoramic view of the Capitol and the Washington skyline, Billington said we “tend to rely on economics to explain everything,” but there was no way to explain or predict “that we were suddenly confronted with Islamic radicals … who would rather be dead than alive.”

Asked if the economic recession and the hyper-partisan political climate in Congress has made his job more difficult, Billington noted that the Library, like other government institutions, is “part of the appropriations process.”

He indicated he was satisfied with a 2010 fiscal year appropriation of $684 million, and pointed out that the Library’s permanent staff of almost 3,600 employees is 1,100 fewer than “before we went seriously digital” about 10 years ago.

Billington spent much of the interview talking about the impact of the digital revolution on society, and the Library’s massive effort to meet that challenge by “contributing to a knowledge-based democracy and its place in the world.”

These efforts include the National Digital Library and World Digital Library and other Internet services like the congressional database, THOMAS, which handled more than 2.6 billion transactions last year, as well as a program that has brought more than 11,000 young Russians to study in the U.S., while living with American families.

Asked for his thoughts as head of the world’s largest library, which includes collections of materials from more than 60 countries and representing some 470 different languages, Billington said he is grateful “for the opportunity to sustain the reputation of an institution like this. At the same time, I’m grateful for the support of all the things that affect the long-term future of the Library of Congress.”

He added, “At my age and in this position, my job is to see that as much of what is valuable and important for the United States has a chance to survive in this difficult economic climate, that it has a chance to contribute to a knowledge-based democracy and its place in the world.”