James Hadley Billington

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James Hadley Billington

The American scholar and author James Hadley Billington (born 1929) was a student of Russian history who became director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and later the Librarian of Congress.

James Hadley Billington was born June 1, 1929, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, the son of Nelson and Jane (Coolbaugh) Billington. He attended schools in the Philadelphia area and graduated from the Lower Merion High School, where he was the class valedictorian and had been elected school president in 1946. While in high school during World War II, he had become interested in Russian history and literature and began studying the Russian language. Billington later majored in European history at Princeton University, where he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his bachelor of arts degree and graduated first in his class in 1950.

Billington went to England as a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College for his graduate studies. He earned a doctor of philosophy degree from Oxford in 1953. Returning to the U.S., he joined the army. During his term of active duty, from 1953 to 1956, he rose through the ranks from private to first lieutenant.

The young scholar then embarked on his career of research and teaching. He became a history instructor at Harvard University in 1957 and an assistant professor of history and research fellow at the Russian Research Center in 1958. During this period his first book, Mikhailovsky and Russian Populism (1958), was published. The book, an expansion of his doctoral thesis at Oxford, was a biography of an important 19th-century liberal (non-Marxist) journalist and social critic. Billington called him the greatest of Russia's radical humanists. The book's analysis shed light on the political and social thinking in Russia before the Marxist revolution.

Billington transferred to his alma mater, Princeton University, in 1961. As professor of history, Billington's research and teaching interests sent him to university settings in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Tel Aviv, Puerto Rico, Helsinki, and Paris. His travels permitted him to gather material for his next books. The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (1966) is a massive book that traces 600 years of Russian civilization and emphasizes aspects of thought, culture, and religion that shaped Russia's character and temperament. The author focused on symbols that were important to Russian imagination and on spiritual and ideological patterns. The book demonstrated Billington's approach to research. He believed in interpretive scholarship and felt that understanding a nation requires a multidimensional investigation of its religion, literature, arts, and aspirations.

He contributed an essay on the social and religious relevance of art in culture to The Arts of Russia (1970). The essay showed his admiration for the artistic accomplishments of the Russian people.

Billington became director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in September 1973. The center was created by Congress in 1968 as a living memorial to the 28th President and is located at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The center grew under Billington's administration. American and foreign scholars were invited to spend time reflecting on the humanities and social sciences. Billington expanded the scope and activity of the center. He helped create the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in 1974, believing that the relationship with the Soviet Union was America's most important international problem. He also helped start Wilson Quarterly, a scholarly magazine.

Billington's administrative leadership did not sidetrack him from creative pursuits. During 1973 he wrote and hosted the "Humanities Film Forum," a series of 14 scholarly discussions on nationwide educational television. He was a guest commentator and historian-consultant for major television networks. He wrote articles for a variety of professional and popular magazines. In addition, he was a chairperson and a member of the Board of Foreign Scholarships, which directed academic exchanges with 110 countries under the Fulbright-Hays Act.

Billington wrote Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980). The book highlights philosophers who sparked European development in the period from the French to the Russian revolutions. This, as in his previous books, was massively documented. It was nominated for a National Book Award.

Recognized as a scholar of Russian history and culture, he was invited to participate in American-Soviet exchange meetings. He accompanied the leadership delegations of the Congress to the Soviet Union in 1979 and 1983. He went with President Reagan to the summit meetings in June 1988.

Active in his community, he was a vice chairman of the board of trustees of St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and a member of the roundtable organized by the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

President Reagan nominated Billington as Librarian of Congress. Although not trained as a professional librarian, his administrative and fund-raising experience at the Wilson Center and his reputation as a scholar made him a good choice for the nomination. On September 14, 1987, he was sworn in as the 13th head of the library, succeeding Daniel J. Boorstin. As librarian, Billington oversaw the largest collection of books, maps, photographs, recordings, motion pictures, and so forth in the world. Billington has been working to create a National Digital Library, which makes these documents available to the public via computer. Billington firmly believes that Americans need to stay in close touch with their history, and by digitizing the books in the Library of Congress, he told John Maclean of Reader's Digest, they are "putting them into people's hands." Billington expects to have five million items digitized by the year 2000.

Billington continued to be involved in Russian relations. In 1991 he was invited to be an honored guest at an event welcoming back Russian emigres in Moscow. When he returned to the United States, the Russian chief of archival affairs entrusted him with 300 files dating back to the October Revolution of 1917.

The changes in Eastern Europe prompted Billington to write another book, Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, published in 1992. The following year he returned to Russia as part of a bipartisan delegation of House leadership.

Billington's contributions have been recognized in various ways. He received the Gwangwa Medal of the Republic of Korea in 1991, the Woodrow Wilson Award from Princeton University in 1992, and the Knight Commander's Cross of Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany in 1996. He holds several honorary degrees, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France.

Billington married Marjorie Ann Brennan on June 22, 1957. They have two daughters and two sons.

Further Reading

There is no book-length biography of Billington. Short articles about him and his work have appeared at various stages of his career. Edward P. Morgan discussed Billington and the Woodrow Wilson Center in "Wilson Center Immerses Scholars in Think Tank," Smithsonian (August 1977). Reactions to his appointment as Librarian of Congress appeared in Irvin Molotsky, "A Scholarly Librarian," New York Times (April 18, 1987), and Ellen K. Coughlin, "Director of Woodrow Wilson Center Is Said To Be White House's Choice for Librarian of Congress," Chronicle of Higher Education (April 22, 1987). A Billington interview is reported in Carla Hall, "Chapter and Verse, American Style," Washington Post (April 18, 1987). See also John Maclean, "Librarian for the People," Reader's Digest (June 1995), Who's Who in America (1996), and Who's Who in the World (1996). The web site for The U.S. National Commission on Libraries and Information Science also contains biographical information about Billington at <http://www.nclis.gov/what/bios/billingt.html>. □