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The Custodian of Knowledge


Article # : 15058 

Section : LIFE
Issue Date : 3 / 1996  3,305 Words
Author : Mitchell G. Bard

       The largest collection of books on the planet surrounds James Billington, but the Librarian of Congress doesn't have time to read. Not only that, he can't even browse the stacks, because security restrictions imposed to prevent vandalism apply to even him.

        Still, Billington isn't complaining. After all, he holds one of the most elite positions in Washington. In fact, he has fewer predecessors than President Clinton. Billington, an author and historian, is only the thirteenth librarian in the institution's 194-year history.

        Besides having one of the best jobs in town, Billington also enjoys one of the best views from his large corner office on the sixth floor of the Madison Building overlooking the Mall. Sitting in his office late on a Friday, with the sun setting behind the Washington Monument, the 66-year-old librarian answers questions in the calm, erudite manner of a professor. The six-foot-two, gray-haired, well-groomed father of four looks more like the stereotypical patrician than a librarian, bearing a resemblance to author George Plimpton.

        While Billington may not have to shoulder the weighty responsibilities of being the leader of the Free World, his sacred task--to maintain most of our recorded knowledge--is hardly trivial.

        Consider, for example, the Library's role in helping the United States win the Gulf War. Shortly before the ground campaign was to begin, military planners realized it was possible the Allied invasion force could get stuck because no one knew whether the sand in Iraq could support the weight of tanks and heavy personnel carriers. Spy satellites could produce photographs of the terrain but could not determine the texture of the sand. "We wouldn't be talking about Colin Powell, or have honored General Schwarzkopf, if they all sank in the sand," Billington notes. "So how do you find out something like this? Well, it turns out old archaeological books about digs in Mesopotamia, written by meticulous German scholars, record in monotonous detail how hard it was to dig through the soil, in exactly what part, and how long it took to get to ancient ruins of whatever they were looking for. So you suddenly got people from the military descending on the Library and reading old archaeological books."

        Knowledge is power, as this example illustrates, so it is no surprise the Library is in Washington. Still, it did not start out as such a universal institution. It was created in 1800 to serve the needs of Congress. Later, the mandate expanded to include the accumulation of knowledge about the American experience. By this century, the Library had begun to seek information related to all cultures.

        The Librarian of Congress is a political appointee whom the Senate must confirm. President Reagan appointed Billington to the post in 1987. Though he has a background as a distinguished scholar--valedictorian at Princeton, doctorate from Oxford, Rhodes scholar, Harvard history instructor, and Princeton professor--what probably caught the attention of politicians was his academic entrepreneurship as director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. During his fourteen years at the center, he created several new programs, including the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies and the Wilson Quarterly, a scholarly journal for professionals and the lay public. "I lived intimately with the problems and opportunities of bringing the world-class life of the mind into the world-class center of political activity," Billington says. "The Library of Congress is another meeting ground of the world of politics and the world of ... Read Full Article

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