Home / James H. Billington, 89, Dies; Led Library of Congress Into Digital Age

James H. Billington, 89, Dies; Led Library of Congress Into Digital Age

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 six million films, television broadcasts and recordings, including Al Jolson singing “Swanee” and Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London in 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.


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