Daniel J. Boorstin

Daniel J. Boorstin
12th Librarian of Congress
In office
November 12, 1975  September 14, 1987
President Gerald Ford
Jimmy Carter
Ronald Reagan
Preceded by Lawrence Mumford
Succeeded by James Billington
Personal details
Born Daniel Joseph Boorstin
(1914-10-01)October 1, 1914
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Died February 28, 2004(2004-02-28) (aged 89)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Alma mater Harvard University
Balliol College, Oxford
Yale University

Daniel Joseph Boorstin (October 1, 1914 – February 28, 2004) was an American historian at the University of Chicago, writing on many topics in American history and world history. He was appointed twelfth Librarian of the United States Congress in 1975 and served until 1987. He was instrumental in the creation of the Library of Congress Center for the Book.

Repudiating his youthful membership in the Communist Party while a Harvard undergraduate (1938–39), Boorstin became a political conservative and a prominent exponent of consensus history. He argued in The Genius of American Politics (1953) that ideology, propaganda, and political theory are foreign to America. His writings were often linked with such historians as Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz and Clinton Rossiter as a proponent of the "consensus school," which emphasized the unity of the American people and downplayed class and social conflict. Boorstin especially praised inventors and entrepreneurs as central to the American success story.[1][2]


Boorstin was born in 1914, in Atlanta, Georgia, into a Jewish family. His parents were Samuel Aaron (1887 - 1967) and Dora Olsan (1894 -1948) Boorstin. [3][4][lower-alpha 1] His father was a lawyer who participated in the defense of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent who was accused of the rape and murder of a teenage girl. After Frank's 1915 lynching led to a surge of anti-Semitic sentiment in Georgia, the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Boorstin was raised. He graduated from Tulsa's Central High School in 1930, at the age of 15.[5] Although Samuel wanted his son to go to the University of Oklahoma, become an attorney and join his own law firm, Daniel wanted to go to Harvard Law School.[6] He graduated with highest honors (summa cum laude) from Harvard in 1937, studied at Balliol College, Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, receiving BA and BCL degrees.[lower-alpha 2] The American National Biography Online states that he joined the Communist Party in 1938, then left it in 1939, when Russia and Germany invaded Poland.[8] In 1940, he earned a SJD degree at Yale University. He was hired as an assistant professor at Swarthmore College in 1942, where he stayed for two years. In 1944, he became a professor at the University of Chicago for 25 years and was the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge in 1964. He served as director and senior historian of the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution (now known as the National Museum of American History, Behring Center from 1973 to 1975. President Gerald Ford nominated Boorstin to be Librarian of Congress, in 1975.[7]

On April 9, 1941, he married a Wellesley College graduate, Ruth Carolyn Frankel (1917 - 2013). She quickly became his partner and editor for his first book, The Mysterious Science of the Law, published in the same year.[8] Boorstin, with Ruth as his collaborator, wrote more than 20 books, including two major trilogies, one on the American experience and the other on world intellectual history. The Americans: The Democratic Experience, the final book in the first trilogy, received the 1974 Pulitzer Prize in history. Boorstin's second trilogy, The Discoverers, The Creators and The Seekers, examines the scientific, artistic and philosophic histories of humanity, respectively. In his “Author’s Note” for The Daniel J. Boorstin Reader (Modern Library, 1995), he wrote, “Essential to my life and work as a writer was my marriage in 1941 to Ruth Frankel who has ever since been my companion and editor for all my books.” Her obituary in the Washington Post (December 6, 2013) quotes Boorstin as saying, “Without her, I think my works would have been twice as long and half as readable.”

Within the discipline of social theory, Boorstin's 1961 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America is an early description of aspects of American life that were later termed hyperreality and postmodernity. In The Image, Boorstin describes shifts in American culture – mainly due to advertising – where the reproduction or simulation of an event becomes more important or "real" than the event itself. He goes on to coin the term pseudo-event, which describes events or activities that serve little to no purpose other than to be reproduced through advertisements or other forms of publicity. The idea of pseudo-events anticipates later work by Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord. The work is an often used text in American sociology courses, and Boorstin's concerns about the social effects of technology remain influential.[9]

Boorstin has been credited with saying, "“Ideas need no passports from their place of origin, nor visas for the countries they enter…. We, the librarians of the world, are servants of an indivisible world… Books and ideas make a boundless world.”[10]

When President Ford nominated Boorstin to be Librarian of Congress in 1975, the nomination was supported by the Authors Guild but opposed by liberals, who objected to his perceived conservatism and his opposition to the social revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s.[8] He was attacked by the American Library Association because Boorstin "was not a library administrator". The Senate confirmed the nomination without debate.[11]

Boorstin retired in 1987, saying that he wanted to spend full time writing. He died of pneumonia February 28, 2004, in Washington D. C.[5] He was survived by Ruth, his three sons, Paul, Jonathan and David, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.[7][lower-alpha 3] David Levy, a history professor at Oklahoma University, said in one of his lectures after Boorstin's death: “One can only imagine what he might have achieved, if he had only listened to his father’s advice about where to go to college.”[6]

Professor Levy's observations on Boorstin's approach to history

Professor Levy delivered a lecture about Boorstin in April 2014 at an Oklahoma University event, the President’s Day of Learning. He had several observations about Boorstin's approach to American history that seem to explain why many contemporary historians opposed his appointment to head the Library of Congress. According to Levy:

Impact on the Library of Congress

John Y. Cole, in the obituary of Boorstin he wrote for the American Antiquarian, credited Boorstin with bringing new intellectual energy to the Library of Congress (LOC), opening the institution to, "the public, to scholars, and to new constituencies.[7] In 1976, he held a press conference to announce that he had discovered the contents of President Lincoln's pockets when he was assassinated in 1865. They had been in a wall safe in the Librarian's office. He had these artifacts put on public display, where they have become the most popular attraction for by tourists visiting the 'American Treasures of the Library of Congress' exhibition in the Library's Jefferson Building. He was instrumental in creating the American Folklife Center in 1976, and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress in 1977.[lower-alpha 4] In 1979, the LOC and the Kennedy Center opened a Performing Arts Library in the Kennedy Center. In 1980, he set up the Council of Scholars, a new link between the LOC and the world of scholarship. Another major event during Boorstin's tenure at was the construction and implementation of LOC's James Madison Memorial Building during 1980 - 1982. He obtained private contributions to open the Mary Pickford Theater in the Madison Building in 1983. The theater was intended to increase public awareness of the LOC's large collection of motion pictures.[7]

In 1984, Boorstin and Architect of the Capitol George White teamed up to persuade Congress to appropriate $81.5 million for rehabilitating two of the LOC's older structures, the Jefferson (1897) and Adams (1939) Buildings. In 1986, Boorstin appeared before Congress to oppose legislation that would have made drastic cuts in the LOC budget. His pleas resulted in substantially restoring the proposed cuts. It also resulted in his being called, "...an intellectual Paul Revere."[7]

Overall, Boorstin proved so persuasive that the Federal appropriation increased from $116 million to more than $250 million during his administration.


His book, The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958) won the Bancroft Prize for best book in history. The Society of American Historians awarded Boorstin the Francis Parkman Prize for The Americans: The National Experience (1965).[8] Boorstin was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure, First Class, by the Japanese government in 1986. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for writing The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).[5] He was inducted into the Tulsa Hall of Fame in 1989, and received the Oklahoma Book Award in 1993 for The Creators.[5]

He held twenty honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Tulsa[5] and Doctor of Letters from Oglethorpe University in 1994.[12]



  1. Daniel's parents are both buried in Tulsa's Rose Hill Cemetery.
  2. As a Rhodes Scholar, he won first class honors in jurisprudence and civil law and was admitted as a barrister-at-law of the Inner Temple.[7]
  3. Cole says that his sons earn their livelihood in literary activities or in the performing arts.[7]
  4. The Center for the Book was an office in the LOC to promote the reading of books both nationally and internationally.[7]


  1. Alan J. Levine (2011). Bad Old Days: The Myth of the 1950s. Transaction Publishers. pp. 81–82.
  2. Pole (1969)
  3. Find a Grave. "Samuel Aaron Boorstin," Accessed September 28, 2016.
  4. Find a Grave "Dora Olsan Boorstein." Accessed September 28, 2016.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 Wilson, Linda D. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. "Boorstin, Daniel J. (1914–2004)."
  6. 1 2 3 Greene, Wayne. "Wayne's World: An academic blog about Daniel Boorstin, but it does have one funny line in it." Tulsa World. May 27, 2014. Accessed May 29, 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Cole, John Y. "Obituaries:Daniel J. Boorstin." American Antiquarian. pp. 26 - 30. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  8. 1 2 3 4 Evenson, Bruce J. "Daniel J. Boorstin," American National Biography Online. February 2000. Accessed October 2, 2016.
  9. "Daniel J. Boorstin, RIP". The New Atlantis. Spring 2004.
  10. This Land Winter 2016. Accessed September 28, 2016.
  11. Robert Wedgeworth (1993). World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services. American Library Association. pp. 137–38.
  12. "Honorary Degrees Awarded by Oglethorpe University". Oglethorpe University. Retrieved 2015-03-06.

Further reading

External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Daniel J. Boorstin
Political offices
Preceded by
Lawrence Q. Mumford
Librarian of Congress
Succeeded by
James H. Billington
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