Celebrating James Billington, The Librarian of Congress Emeritus: A Lifetime of Advancing Knowledge in the Public Service | Wilson Center
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Celebrating James Billington, The Librarian of Congress Emeritus: A Lifetime of Advancing Knowledge in the Public Service

Webcast available

Webcast Recap

Photo by Flickr user m01229 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.

The Wilson Center is proud to host a distinguished panel of commentators who will discuss the many contributions of James Billington—professor, author, Director of the Wilson Center and co-founder of the Kennan Institute, founder of the Open World Leadership Center, and recently retired Librarian of Congress.

After his service in the U.S. Army, Dr. Billington embarked on a career as an educator, teaching at Harvard University and Princeton University. He emerged as one of the country’s foremost experts on Russian history and culture, having authored several monographs on Russia including the seminal “Icon and the Axe” (1966). He joined the Wilson Center as its director in 1973, and co-founded the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in 1974. He established several other programs and the Wilson Quarterly while at the Wilson Center.

Dr. Billington was nominated to serve as Librarian of Congress by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 and was unanimously approved by the Senate. During his tenure, he more than doubled the Library’s traditional collections and embarked on an ambitious drive to digitize and provide electronic access to the Library’s collections, including its visual and audio resources. He added to the Library the world’s largest audio-visual conservation center and initiated programs, exhibitions, and outreach efforts such as the National Book Festival to promote literacy and reading. He also greatly increased international contacts and cooperation with other state libraries and institutions worldwide.

As Librarian of Congress, Dr. Billington led multiple trips to Russia for members of Congress, and established the Open World Leadership Center to promote individual contacts and exchanges from the nations of the post-Soviet space. The program has facilitated the visit of over 24,000 individuals from Eurasia to the United States to meet with members of Congress and visit across the United States.

Dr. Billington was recently designated as the Librarian of Congress Emeritus, and is only the third person given this title by the United States Congress.


  • James F. Collins

    Diplomat in Residence and Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment; U.S. Ambassador to Russia (1997-2001)
  • Vartan Gregorian

    President, Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Blair A. Ruble

    Distinguished Fellow
    Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
  • Ismail Serageldin

    Director, Library of Alexandria (Egypt)