James H. Billington (1929-2018): A Remembrance

“If we didn’t already have libraries, they would now have to be invented. They are the keys to American success in fully exploiting the information highways of the future,” wrote James H. Billington in the winter 1994 issue of Media Strategies Journal. At the time, the thirteenth Librarian of Congress was reminding a nation enthralled with the nascence of the internet that libraries would be as important as ever in the electronic age, as preservation repositories, testing grounds for experiments in digitization, and strongholds where anyone could freely access humankind’s various written efforts.
Billington wasn’t just offering his opinion; he was engaged in what would become a battle to preserve the mission of the Library of Congress (LOC).
In 1995, a report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggested, in an effort to streamline operations at the LOC, that the library’s $350 million annual operating budget be slashed to practically nothing and turn its focus to “increasing revenue” (whatever that means) rather than building and sustaining the country’s knowledge hub. Luckily, Congress committee members charged with reviewing the document rejected the plan. As Billington noted in Patience & Fortitude (Basbanes, 2001), the attempt to undermine the LOC’s mission was hardly noticed by the national media. “The Messiah could make a personal appearance in the main reading room, and the chances are fifty-fifty that it would get any attention from the press,” he said. But the GAO’s report, if acted upon, would have had serious consequences for the future of America’s library, and Billington “went after it tooth and nail….because it was a cautionary issue of no small significance.”
Indeed, what was at stake, as the career humanist realized, was whether the world’s largest library–charged with, as he put it, “stockpiling information”–could continue to ensure that anyone could browse the LOC’s unique treasures.

 

And yet, Billington did not shy away from the new digital medium. In fact, he embraced what this technology could offer. During his tenure from 1987 to 2015, Billington oversaw great change at the LOC, ushering in dozens of free digital initiatives like the online American culture resource for K-12 education now known as the National Digital Library; thomas.gov, a free portal to U.S. federal legislative information; National Jukebox, which provides free access to over 10,000 out-of-print music and spoken word recordings; and a digital talking books app. He also established programs like the National Book Festival and the Veterans History Project.
And though cost-cutting was often on the wish-list of many political agendas, over the years, Billington raised over half a billion dollars to supplement Congressional financial support no matter who was in office.
Billington faced the future of book culture with steely-eyed awareness and an understanding that far surpassed many contemporaries. He welcomed the Internet age as a liberation of physical books from the cumbersome task of storing facts and figures. “With the move to electronic formats, what I believe you will now see is that books containing data will be online, and the serious kind of traditional literature that has always been in book form will continue to appear in book form. The book, in my view, will be freed from a very heavy burden that it has to bear all these years,” he explained in Patience & Fortitude. “It will be allowed to flourish anew.”

“Home” for the Holidays

For many of us, the next few weeks will be a flurry of holiday parties, last-minute gift runs, and the chance to see family and friends. In a bid to remember why we go through so much trouble to be with loved ones this time of year, consider picking up the third literary anthology in the Freeman’s collection entitled Home (Grove, $16). Thirty-seven writers from around the world focused on the idea of home, each bringing a new perspective and interpretation.

In the narrative nonfiction piece “Vacationland,” author Kerri Arsenault returns to her hometown of Mexico, Maine, which sits on the banks of the Androscoggin River. Now a derelict relic of a bygone era, the townspeople’s former prosperity came from toiling in the paper mill in nearby Rumford. “That’s money coming out of those smokestacks,” Arsenault’s father used to say, but there was plenty else coming out of those stacks, too–dioxin, cadmium, arsenic, mercury, and other by-products of contemporary mass-produced papermaking, slowly poisoning the surrounding environment and its inhabitants. (Read “At the Crossroads” in On Paper for a look inside the modern commercial papermaking experience.)

Read more about the idea of home over at the Fine Books Blog.

Get into the Giving Mood by Donating to Booklyn’s Kickstarter

The year-end fundraiser to keep Booklyn in Brooklyn is nearing its final days. Founded in 1999, the non-profit artists and bookmakers association has promoted, documented, and distributed artists’ books to the general public and educational institutions, dedicated to education through the exhibition and distribution of art books and prints. (For a thorough examination, read A.N. Devers’ piece about the nonprofit here, from the Fine Books & Collections Spring 2015 issue.)
Having long ago grown out of its 600-square-foot studio in Greenpoint, the organization has been on the hunt for a new home, and was recently invited to take up residence at ArtBuilt Brooklyn, a 50,000-square-foot art community at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. There, Booklyn will have a production studio, art gallery, event space, and an office to continue producing artists’ books.

To fund the move, Booklyn went to Kickstarter. Read the rest of the story on the Fine Books Blog. Then see all the goodies available to donors here.

 

images courtesy of Booklyn

A New Light: Louvre Abu Dhabi Ushers a Global Focus on Shared Stories of Humanity

On November 11th, a museum opened in Abu Dhabi. And as is fitting for a city known for its glittering skyscrapers and  luxury accommodations, it wasn’t just any museum. A collaboration with the Louvre in Paris, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is being billed as a new culture hub for the Middle East.

Read all about this new desert art palace over at the Art & Object website.

 

image: © Louvre Abu Dhabi – Photography Roland Halbe

Lincoln Letter and Mallet Go to Auction

With the holiday season comes the winter auctions, and Christie’s December 5 books and manuscripts sale in New York is full of exquisite stocking stuffers for the collectors on your list. Among the items up for bid is a letter written in 1858 by Abraham Lincoln, at the time the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Lincoln composed the letter in preparation for seven forthcoming debates with Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas. (In 1858, senators were elected by state legislatures and these debates helped sway the Illinois General Assembly.) Addressed to fellow attorney Henry Asbury, the letter outlines how Lincoln intended to debate whether a territory had the right to exclude slavery even in the wake of the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case stating that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories.

Read all about this letter and Lincoln’s wooden mallet at the Fine Books Blog.

Kitchen Work

Perhaps you already kicked off the holiday season with an impressive Halloween yard display. Others of you may consider Thanksgiving the traditional start to a seemingly never-ending buffet of open houses and cocktail parties. With that in mind, I humbly submit a little literary hors d’oeuvre: the Fall 2017 edition of Kitchen Work, a new, print-only quarterly journal focusing on what and how we eat and drink.

Read all about this tasty new treat and where to find it on the Fine Books Blog.

New Biography on Bernard Rosenthal Makes the Case for Close Reading

In January, bookseller Bernard Rosenthal passed away in Oakland, California, at the age of 96. Fellow bookseller Ian Jackson recently wrote a biography on Rosenthal–read all about it at the Fine Books Blog.

In January, bookseller Bernard Rosenthal passed away in Oakland, California, at the age of 96. Rosenthal was born in Munich in 1920 into a family of booksellers known throughout the industry as the “Rosenthal Dynasty.” Part of the massive exodus of Jewish antiquarian booksellers from Germany during the Nazi regime–the “gentle invaders” as Rosenthal called them–he ended up in New York, where he set up shop in the 1950s. Rosenthal eventually moved to Berkeley, where he focused on medieval manuscripts and early printed books. (For more on Rosenthal and fellow emigré booksellers of the early 20th century, read Nick Basbanes’ chapter “Hunters and Gatherers” in Patience & Fortitude.)

Rosenthal’s catalogs became the stuff of legend in the antiquarian world, in which he described easily overlooked details and craftsmanship that only came to light after careful examination of the item at hand. “We have committed the cardinal sin of the bookseller: we have READ most of these books…which has, however, brought some surprising results,” Rosenthal wrote in one of his early catalogs.

Fellow bookseller Ian Jackson recently wrote a biography on Rosenthal–read all about it at the Fine Books Blog.