RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It is the end of a long chapter for James Billington. The librarian of Congress has announced he's retiring at the end of the year. He is 86, and he's held the post since being named by President Ronald Reagan. NPR's Brian Naylor has more.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Billington announced his retirement in a video, telling employees the library has been, quote, "not just my job but my life." Billington was a Russia scholar before coming to the library in 1987 and has written several books on Russia and Europe. During his nearly three-decade tenure, he presided over a period of immense changes. The size of the collection nearly doubled to 160 million items. And under Billington, the library began digitizing the collection. Suzanne Thorin served as Billington's chief of staff before heading libraries at Indiana and Syracuse University. She calls Billington visionary, saying among other things, he was key to putting Congress's legislative process online.
SUZANNE THORIN: The whole effort of THOMAS, where the workings of the Congress and the bills that are being processed were put out into the public and easy to get at, Jim was right behind it 1,000 percent. The National Digital Library Program was unheard of at that point. The fundraising that he did was incredible.
NAYLOR: But there have been critics too, especially in recent years, who said Billington was imperious, resisted change and that the digitization effort was lagging. The Government Accountability Office issued a report pointedly saying the library lacked the leadership needed to address its information technology problems. Thorin says Billington is a bit of a throwback but also brilliant.
THORIN: I don't even think he does email, or I don't even think he has a cell phone. But when I look back at the time I had with him, I can say he taught me more than any boss I've ever had in my life.
NAYLOR: The Library of Congress has multiple roles. It provides research for members of Congress, administers copyright laws and houses a vast collection of rare manuscripts, early recordings and films, even musical instruments. Congress has cut its budget in recent years. It's now at some $630 million annually, and staff has been reduced. President Obama will now have the rare opportunity to nominate a new librarian of Congress to succeed Billington, who will have to be confirmed by the Senate. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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