James H. Billington, 85, the technophobic librarian of Congress who was less than fully keen on e-mail, e-books and other devilry, is retiring effective Wednesday rather than January 1, 2016.
Acting Librarian will be David Mao, deputy librarian.
The library’s press release did not disclose Billington’s reasons for retirement ahead of schedule.
During Billington’s 28 years heading LoC, it wasn’t as if the library avoided all technological innovation. Let us credit him for such undertakings as the World Digital Library and the American Memory project for K-12 and a web site that put congressional documents online. But a genuine eagerness to move into the digital era just was not there. Others undoubtedly were pushing him to do what he did. Tech Law Journal reported Billington’s ‘tude toward E in the year 2000, and I wonder how much it changed, if at all:
Billington elaborated on why the Library will not put books online during the question and answer session. “The rationale is two fold. We have so much special format material that nobody has seen that it is more important to get those out.” He added that the Library is more concerned with “rare pamphlets” than “full books”.
“Secondly, behind this … is an implicit belief [that books] are not going to be replaced, and should not be replaced.”
“There is a difference between turning pages and scrolling down,” he said. “There is something about a book that should inspire a certain presumption of reverence.”
“We should be very hesitant … that you are going to get everything you want electronically.”
“You don’t want to be one of those mindless futurists,” said Billington, “who sit in front of a lonely screen.”
“It is isolating. It is a lonely thing.” In contrast, “libraries are places, a community thing.”
Related: ‘Must’ for next librarian of Congress: A love of reading—including the ebook variety and Q. for the next Librarian of Congress: What to do about the Internet Archive? Google Books’ scanning project? Appoint Archive’s Brewster Kahle as librarian?