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Library of Congress head James Billington to retire after nearly 30 years

By Amy R. Connolly
Library of Congress head James Billington to retire after nearly 30 years
James H. Billington arrives for the formal Artist's Dinner honoring the recipients of the 2013 Kennedy Center Honors hosted by United States Secretary of State John F. Kerry at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013. On Thursday, Billington, the head of the Library of Congress, announced he will step down Jan. 1 amid accusations of technological failures at the world's largest library. File Photo by UPI/Ron Sachs | License Photo

WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- The head of the Library of Congress will step down Jan. 1 as the world's largest library struggles to stay ahead of technological failures that have hampered efforts to bring its holdings into the digital age.

James H. Billington, 86, will retire after nearly 30 years as the 13th librarian of Congress. Appointed in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan, Billington was a leading Russian scholar who has since been praised for raising an unprecedented half billion dollars in private-sector donations for the library. At the same time, however, Billington has been highly criticized for "widespread weaknesses" in managing the library's technology resources and internal strife throughout the library.

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The reaction in the library was almost gleeful, with some workers feeling a sense of relief and renewal.. Others said they wanted to form a conga line down Pennsylvania Avenue.

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"It's a great day for the library. The man has had 27 years to do good things, and he hasn't," said volunteer Maureen Moore, who retired from the library in 2005. "But the ecstasy is tempered by worry that Obama will appoint someone else who isn't a librarian, someone who doesn't have management experience or another megalomaniac."

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In March, a year-long investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the federal government's watchdog arm, found widespread weaknesses in the library's ability to manage information technology resources and a lack of leadership to address the needs. A 2013 audit found millions of items, dating as far back as the 1980s, have been left uncatalogued in piles in warehouses and buildings. In addition, only a small fraction of its 24 million books are available to read online. At the same time, current and former library employees say Billington has not embraced technology that includes email, instead opting to communicate through fax from his house. As early as last week, Billington told the New York Times he had no intention of retiring, dismissing the criticisms as rantings of rivals and disgruntled former employees.

Wednesday, Billington said he is confident the new leadership will "continue to innovate, adapt and improve on the work we have undertaken during my time as Librarian of Congress."

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"Over the years I have been asked if I have been thinking about retiring; and the answer has always been 'not really,' because this library has always been not just my job, but my life," Billington said in a written statement. "However, I have never had more faith in the leadership and staff of the Library of Congress."

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Even though Billington was known to ignore Congress's directives, he received praise for his tenure.

"Rarely do you meet one man who can say he's been a Princeton valedictorian, a Harvard professor, a Rhodes Scholar, an expert on the Kremlin, and a veteran," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement. "I know he's proud of his many initiatives to expand the reach and relevance of a library he's referred to as the 'greatest collection of knowledge and copyrighted creativity in human history.' "

Founded in 1800, the Library of Congress operates on a $630 million budget with 3,200 employees.

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