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April 17, 2007

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington Receives Inaugural Lafayette Prize

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington is the recipient of the inaugural Lafayette Prize, given by the French-American Cultural Foundation for contributions to the development of relations between the United States and France.

The new annual award was created to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who served heroically in the American Revolution. The award was presented to Billington during a program last month at the residence of France’s Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte.

Award-winning author David McCullough, who has conducted much of his research at the Library of Congress for his best-selling books, introduced Billington. "Tonight, we honor the 13th Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. Superbly learned, phenomenally energetic, eloquent in a variety of languages, he has brought the Library of Congress into the dazzling high-tech modern age with unfailing dedication, imagination and conviction … He has traveled farther, much farther, on behalf of the Library, and talked more with all-characteristic verve than any Librarian before him or than could ever have been imagined."

In the program distributed to guests, Leonard L. Silverstein, president of the French-American Cultural Foundation, stated, "Dr. James Billington is a living symbol of the moral and intellectual grandeur of the United States. As Librarian of Congress, he gives life to the fundamental link between knowledge and political action. In true Jeffersonian tradition, he has brilliantly advanced new thinking on means of communication and the dissemination of information."

Silverstein also stated, "Dr. Billington’s amitié with France, his profound understanding of its language and history, his kinship with its authors and philosophers, allow him to understand beyond appearances and obvious day-to-day observations what lies at the very heart of Franco-American friendship. Empowered by this insight, Dr. Billington contributes much more than new instruments of exchange between our two countries. He provides us with an intellectual and human framework for our dialogue."

Billington was presented with an original letter signed by Lafayette on July 17, 1833, and sent to a Monsieur Didier as a letter of recommendation for a Polish refugee in France. In the letter Lafayette talks about the value of freedom.

At the event, Ambassador Levitte said, "What man in this city can claim a greater intellectual vigor and youthfulness of heart than Dr. James Billington? And of all Americans, he has spent more time than anyone at Lafayette’s home (Chateau La Grange in Courpalay, France). Thanks to Dr. Billington, all the documents of La Grange were painstakingly photographed. For us French as well as you Americans, they represent a shared heritage."

In 1996, under an agreement between Billington and Count René de Chambrun, the last living descendant of Lafayette and owner of La Grange, the Library of Congress began filming the Lafayette Papers. The project’s microfilm is now available for use in the reading room of the Library’s Manuscript Division.

McCullough said, "James Billington, more than anyone, with great goodwill and perseverance, made possible the copying of the Lafayette Papers from La Grange for the Library of Congress, a service to scholarship and, to both the United States and France, of limitless value."

The French-American Cultural Foundation, since its inception in 1998, has promoted artistic, educational and cultural exchanges between France and the United States. Its president, Leonard L. Silverstein, has been decorated with the French Legion of Honor. The foundation supports La Maison Française, the cultural arm of the Embassy of France; publishes France Magazine; and encourages ongoing intellectual understanding through conference series and research projects. In 2006 the foundation launched a scholarship program for young French and American artisans, and it also created Washington’s first annual French film festival, "C'est Chic!"

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PR 07-077
04/17/07
ISSN 0731-3527

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