US academic Dr James Billington, 89
James Hadley Billington, one of the world’s foremost Russian historians and a leading American academic and author, has died in Washington, DC. He was 89.
Dr Billington served as the 13th Librarian of Congress after being nominated by president Ronald Reagan in 1987, an appointment unanimously approved by the US Senate. He retired as librarian on September 30, 2015.
Over a 28-year period, he founded the National Book Festival with First Lady Laura Bush, the John Kluge Center and Prize for the Study of Humanity, the Gershwin Prize, and the National Audio Visual Conservation Center.
Throughout a life dedicated to scholarship and service, during which he served every president and Congress since the 1960s until his retirement, Dr Billington played a unique role in preserving, promoting, and sharing America’s rich cultural heritage.
Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, he was educated in Philadelphia-area public schools. He was valedictorian at Lower Merion High School and Princeton University, where he graduated with highest honours in 1950. In 1953, he earned a modern Russian history doctorate from Balliol College of Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Dr Billington received 42 honorary degrees, as well as the US Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the Russian Federation’s Order of Friendship and the French Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.
Following US Army service in President Eisenhower’s Office of National Estimates, he taught history at Harvard University from 1957 to 1962, and at Princeton University, where he was a professor from 1964 to 1974.
From 1973 to 1987, Dr Billington was director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, where he founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, seven other new programmes, and the Wilson Quarterly.
He spent more than 50 years helping America’s leaders and citizens better understand the former Soviet Union and its successor states, contributing to a greater appreciation of America’s values and institutions in countries stretching across onethird of the globe.
He first visited Russia in 1958 and accompanied the president and first lady, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, to Moscow in 1988 for Reagan’s summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev.
During his 28-year tenure at the Library of Congress, Dr Billington enlarged and technologically enhanced public spaces in the Thomas Jefferson Building, repurposing it as a national exhibition venue that hosted more than 100 exhibitions, many featuring materials never before publicly displayed in America.
He doubled the size of the library’s traditional analog collections to more than 160 million items and oversaw innovative preservation initiatives.
He pioneered the reconstruction of Thomas Jefferson’s original library, using private funds raised from the library’s James Madison Council, which he founded.
Dr Billington also founded the Open World Leadership Center, which enabled more than 27,000 Eurasian leaders to engage and learn from the democratic process.
Simultaneously, he created a massive new Library of Congress online presence and launched a series of innovative library programmes to share the educational riches of the library with millions of Americans and the world.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Marjorie Anne Brennan, whom he described as his “indispensable full partner in every way and at every stage of his adult life”, four children and 12 grandchildren.
Tributes were paid by leading national and international figures.
Mrs Laura W Bush said: “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.”
Nancy Pelosi, US House Democratic leader, said: “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 leading author.