Updated: May 17, 2019
Remarks by The Honorable James H. Billington, November 17, 2014
I thank you deeply for this honor and for the generous things that you have said about me. I believe you are really honoring all the many Members of Congress and the staff at the Library past and present who have over the course of 214 years built the Library of Congress into the world’s largest repository both of recorded human knowledge and of the prodigious cultural creativity of the American people. It embodies the essential American idea of our host foundation tonight that every human being is a child of God and every American should have an opportunity to share in the American dream.
So let me briefly share with you first of all two beliefs that my years as The Librarian of Congress have deepened for me:
First is the realization that almost everything that I or any individual public servant can be said to have accomplished is really only the sum total of gifts that God has given you and that other people have affected within you.
Influence is, of course, the coin of the realm, here in this capital city. And it plays a necessary role in the mixture of analysis, argument, and advocacy – through which we make economic and political policy in our free and democratic society. But influence is inherently something somebody seeks to impose from the outside on somebody else – footprints on the sands of time that can be washed away by the next incoming wave.
Affect is not something you just experience from the outside; but rather something that becomes embedded within you by something that some other person says, does, or simply exemplifies for you.
Influence is designed to produce a predetermined short-term result. Affect lives longer and produces unexpected big changes in history and life that enhance your humanity often with humility and humor.
This leads me to a second related thought that has grown on me living amidst a collection that spans 470 different languages:
Humanity’s seemingly universal affection for stories rather than for theories may provide us a gateway to a path towards the long-term survival of our species. Stories bring people together; theories divide people and can even tear them apart. A Nobel Prize-winning neurophysicist told us at the Library of Congress that the human brain is hard-wired for narrative – stories are everywhere, told by people, for people, and about people both natural and supernatural. And affection for our own American story need not impede us in enjoying and learning from the stories of others. Pluralism in America has been based on a plurality of people’s deeply-held beliefs more than a creeping monism of indifference to strong belief itself.
The long-lasting Cold War is the only conflict yet in human history where both of the two main adversaries had the capacity to destroy the entire species of human life on our planet. It ended peacefully by what I would argue was at its core the victory of a story over a theory. Revolutionary communism was a seductive theory that produced catastrophic human stories whenever it was applied from the purges and gulags of Stalin to the killing fields of Cambodia. Western freedom was not so much a theory as an evolutionary process of human aspiration that has given birth to thousands of stories of new opportunity and hope for people everywhere.
I have an incurable optimism about the future of America despite our present discontents. I am encouraged in this hope by some current innovations we are introducing into the nation’s oldest federal cultural institution. I was inspired by Henry Steele Commager, one of the most outstanding historians of America in the 20th century, and by the last words he whispered to me on his final visit to the Library of Congress: “you know the United States is the only world-spanning culture whose enduring institutions were entirely produced in the age of print.” This sentiment helped me decide 25 years ago that the Library must continue to be – like America itself – a place that adds without subtracting – a “both and” not an “either or” national facility for free lifelong learning, adding the new digital without subtracting the traditional sources of knowledge.
We have added at the unanimous request of Congress America’s largest oral history project without subtracting from its treasury of the written human documents. The Library’s Veterans History Project has already gathered nearly 100,000 moving recordings of military veterans who served in all of America’s recent conflicts. And we are also creating a multi-medial World Digital Library with commentary in seven languages to tell the stories of other world cultures by bringing their often widely scattered, most precious founding documents together online for better human understanding.
In conclusion, I remember an older Native American librarian I met following a talk I gave to the Library Association of the Great Plains who wanted to correct the standard definition I had given of librarians as the gatekeepers of knowledge. He quietly said to me, and I quote: “Long before we out here began keeping everything important in libraries we kept it all in the mind and memory of a trusted elder of our tribe. But we never thought of him as a gatekeeper – we called him our dreamkeeper.”
And I have thought of all of us here at the Library of Congress as keepers on Capitol Hill of the essential American dream that we all share – that if more people can have access to more knowledge and creativity to use in more ways with and for more of our people – then together with faith and hard work, however great the problems we face today, tomorrow can still be better than yesterday.