NEW YORK — James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress for nearly three decades, who led the nation’s treasure house of knowledge into the digital age and added millions of books, films, and cultural artifacts to its historic collections, including a trove of tweets, died Tuesday in Washington. He was 89.
His daughter Susan Harper Billington said the cause was complications of pneumonia.
Mr. Billington’s death came a little more than three years after he retired amid mounting criticism that he had presided over a series of management and technology failures in his last years in office. He stepped down in September 2015, having planned to retire at the end of the year. He was succeeded by Carla D. Hayden, the first woman and the first African-American to lead the Library of Congress.
Mr. Billington, a distinguished authority on Russian and Soviet history, was named by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 as the 13th director of the library, the repository of the American experience founded in 1800 under legislation that shifted the capital from Philadelphia to Washington.
He arrived at the dawn of a new era. The internet was in its infancy, newspapers and printed books were thriving, computers were relatively unsophisticated, and Google, Facebook, and Twitter were still over the horizon. For all its millions of books and manuscripts in 450 languages, its 550 miles of shelves and 19 reading rooms, the Library of Congress was terra incognita to most Americans, even to many scholars.
Unlike thousands of public libraries in America — descendants of the one founded by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia in 1731 — it was never a lending library. Begun as a research arm of Congress, the Library of Congress evolved into a resource for the government and scholars, a custodian of the nation’s written, artistic, and cultural heritage, with the added duty of overseeing the US Copyright Office.
“Fifty or 100 years from now,” Mr. Billington told a Senate panel in his appropriations request in March 2015, “members and constituents will turn to the national collection to read, learn from and build upon the creative output of American authors, composers, filmmakers, artists and others — just as citizens today are reaping the value of creative works that were added to the collections in 1965 and in 1915.”
Mr. Billington, who succeeded historian Daniel J. Boorstin, was not a librarian. He was 58 at the time and had studied, written, and taught Russian history for most of his life, notably at Harvard and Princeton. He was fluent in Russian and skilled in Polish, German, Italian, French, Yiddish, and Dutch. He had also led the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian Institution for 14 years and advised Reagan on Soviet Russia.
Supervising 3,100 employees and a $600 million budget as the librarian of Congress, Mr. Billington was the library’s chief public relations promoter and protagonist in the annual fight for funding from Congress. He usually projected increasing expenses, rising tides of acquisitions and dwindling staffs to cope with problems of storage, preservation and services to library users.
“Librarians are the gatekeepers to the new technological possibilities of the electronic culture,” Mr. Billington told Library Journal. “But they are also the dream keepers. They are the custodians of the past.”
In 2005, he proposed the World Digital Library, a partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, that has placed online research materials and rich collections from national libraries and other institutions worldwide. The site, www.wdl.org, was launched in 2009 and features more than 11,000 artifacts from nearly 200 countries.
Film and broadcast holdings were given particular emphasis under Mr. Billington. In 1989, he created the National Film Registry, which has added 25 movies each year. In 2007, David W. Packard and the Packard Humanities Institute gave $155 million, the largest gift in the library’s history, to create the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va. It has 6 million films, television broadcasts, and recordings, including Al Jolson singing “Swanee” and Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London during the Blitz.
Expanding into social media, the library in 2010 acquired Twitter’s digital archive of billions of tweets from around the world sent since the company’s inception in 2006. Among them is President Barack Obama’s celebratory election-night tweet from 2008.
Responding to a barrage of derision for linking the likes of Thucydides and the Founding Fathers with Justin Bieber, Mr. Billington said the tweets would be valuable to historians someday. “The Twitter digital archive has extraordinary potential for research into our contemporary way of life,” he said.
Though Mr. Billington was rarely a focus of controversy, the library’s inspector general, in a 2013 audit, warned that millions of items, some acquired as long ago as the 1980s, remained piled up in overflowing buildings and warehouses, virtually lost to the world.
And the Government Accountability Office in 2015 accused Mr. Billington of mismanaging the library’s information technology systems, and of ignoring for years a legal requirement to hire a chief information officer. In three years, the report said, there had been five acting information officers, each without full authority to manage the library’s systems.
“The library does not have the leadership needed to address these IT management weaknesses,” the GAO said after its yearlong investigation.