Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for James H. Billington as Librarian of Congress

September 14, 1987

We can all be grateful for such beautiful edifices as this. These buildings are treasures, and each of them, in its own way, is a monument to freedom. Certainly that's true of this building, the crown jewel of the largest repository of information in the world.

It was my honor a few years ago to have helped dedicate the Madison Building. This structure, of course, is named for Thomas Jefferson, author of our Declaration of Independence, champion of human freedom, and third President of the United States. Jefferson had an abiding faith in the people, but he knew that the success of that experiment begun on July 4th, 1976 [1776], depended on an informed citizenry. "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Jefferson wrote that. It's fitting then that this Library of Congress—this great clearinghouse for ideas, knowledge, and culture—is open to every citizen. Nearly 2 1/2 million people visited this library last year. It's one of the great institutions of our nation, reflecting the values and openness of a free society.

Today it's a pleasure to assign the stewardship of this institution to one of this nation's most respected intellectuals. Dr. James Billington, I am certain, will continue the magnificent job done here at the Library of Congress by his predecessor, Dr. Daniel Boorstin. And let me add that I think this nation owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Boorstin for his hard work and dedication. Dr. Boorstin did much to ensure that the people as well as government officials receive full benefit of this national treasure. Dr. Billington will build on this tradition.

Jim has had a lifelong love of books. He stands here today because of an appreciation for scholarship instilled in him by a father who never went to college, but who filled his home with books bought secondhand to save the family's limited funds. Much to his father's credit, Jim Billington received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, from which he holds a B.A. degree. He went on to receive his doctorate of philosophy as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. By the way, he speaks eight languages. Throughout a distinguished career, Dr. Billington has combined his love of scholarship with a dedication to public service, because he believes that scholarship and freedom go hand in hand.

In this library and throughout our country one will find books and publications on almost every subject and from almost every point of view. Our Founding Fathers wanted it that way. They trusted the ability of the people to make judgments for themselves. "When truth and error have fair play," Ben Franklin once wrote, "the former is always an overmatch for the latter." Competition, then, is an integral part of a free society. It is not vital just for commerce and industry but also an energizing force in the arena of ideas. There's a creative genius that is unleashed when people are free. Restrict information and you restrict the potential of the nation. Limit public debate and you limit the dynamism of liberty.

Dr. Billington will now bear the responsibility of overseeing the world's largest library, which includes a collection of 84 million items, 535 miles of shelves, and a staff of more than 5,000. During a time of necessary budget restraint, this will not be an easy task. The challenge, as Dr. Boorstin will testify, is not just administering this institution but ensuring that its vast resources are put to maximum use for the benefit of government, academia, business, and the people themselves. The Library of Congress was founded with a $5,000 appropriation in 1800. It has grown with the country, and it is an important part of the decisionmaking process here in the Nation's Capital.

Dr. Billington, I know you'll keep this institution the vital center of scholarship and ideas that it was intended to be. We entrust you with this great national resource, Dr. Billington, and are proud to have you as America's librarian. Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:15 a.m. in the Great Hall at the Library of Congress.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for James H. Billington as Librarian of Congress Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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