News & Politics

Washingtonians of the Year 2011: James H. Billington

Opening literary treasures to all

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

The best things in life are free at the Library of Congress, says James Billington, the man who runs it. The library offers, among many other things, a majestic spot to peruse the printed word: the domed Main Reading Room of the Thomas Jefferson Building, one of the institution’s three locations on Capitol Hill. At the Library of Congress, not only can you see a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence in Jefferson’s handwriting, but you can also examine the handwritten edits of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. Says Billington: “America was put together by the process of conversation among a pretty good crowd.” The library has striking maps on exhibit, including one Billington calls “our birth certificate”—the first map to bear the word “America.”

You don’t have to leave home to contemplate the library’s holdings. More than 24 million documents are online. Since Billington became Librarian of Congress in 1987—the 13th since the institution was created in 1800—he has worked to make America’s greatest repository of literature an open book. Now people everywhere can experience its treasures, including music, photographs, and film.

Billington has raised private funds to acquire new masterworks, such as handwritten scores and other materials by composer George Gershwin, and to improve the library’s ability to preserve its books, maps, manuscripts, and other artifacts. He also created the very popular National Book Festival to expose more people to the wonders of the written word.

After nearly 25 years, Billington says he’s still inspired and humbled: “A library is a place where communities come together, even when they speak different languages. It is a gateway to knowledge. I’m surrounded by people from whom I have the privilege of learning every day.”

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.