America's Next 'Minister of Culture': Don't Politicize the Appointment

George Weigel
National Review

The announcement by James H. Billington that he will retire from his post as Librarian of Congress, effective January 1, marks the beginning of the end of an extraordinarily distinguished career of public service and sets a very high bar of expectation for his successor. For despite the carping from the peanut galleries in recent months, Jim Billington will certainly be remembered as one of the great custodians of one of the world’s great cultural treasures — and perhaps the greatest.

In almost three decades of service, Jim Billington grew the Library of Congress in unprecedented ways. He pushed it into the digital age by raising half a billion dollars in private funds. He co-founded the National Book Festival with Laura Bush, drawing millions of Americans every year into a celebration of reading. He presided over the renovation of the magnificent Jefferson Building. He founded the Kluge Center for scholars at the Library and established the Kluge Prize for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity — a worthy complement to the Nobel prizes and a needed alternative to the political correctness that now dominates the Nobel literature prize. He created the Gershwin Prize to honor lifetime achievement in popular songwriting and he built the Packard Center for Film Preservation to safeguard another facet of American popular culture. At the same time, he was the intellectual driving force behind a number of groundbreaking exhibits that, through the books created from them, continue to enrich the nation’s high-cultural life — and challenge many of the shibboleths of the contemporary academy, especially in matters of religion and modernity.

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