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Former Librarian of Congress and Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Boorstin ’34 died of pneumonia last Sunday in Washington, D.C. He was 89.
Boorstin, a social historian, wrote dozens of books during his lifetime, focusing not on world leaders but on the life of the average person. In 1973, he won the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Democratic Experience, the third volume of his trilogy, The Americans.
“Boorstin was one of the great historians of that generation,” Columbia History Professor Eric Foner said.
Known for his bow ties and his conservatism, Boorstin coined the phrase “pseudo-event” to describe a situation that was staged to get news coverage and mold the public’s perception. He offered the Nixon-Kennedy television debates as his prime example of a staged historical event.
Boorstin taught at Harvard, Radcliffe and Swarthmore before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1944.
He stayed at Chicago for 25 years. Though he taught at many universities, the conservative Boorstin, who was strongly opposed to affirmative action, said he never felt comfortable surrounded by liberal academic historians.
Although they had different takes on history, Foner said Boorstin was “always extremely kind and courteous.”
Robert Loomis, Boorstin’s Random House editor and friend of 40 years, said his focus on the lives of everyday people set him apart.
“He loved history and ideas, and his ideas about history were different,” Loomis said. “In his book, The Americans, he didn’t write about wars or presidential elections. It was about a way of life.
“A lot of historians can write, but he was a good writer. He had this way of expressing his ideas that really made him readable,” Loomis said.
At age 15, the Georgia-born Boorstin, who was also a Crimson editor, enrolled at Harvard. He was named a Rhodes Scholar and after graduation attended Balliol College at Oxford University. In 1940, he received a doctorate from Yale University.
From 1969 to 1973, Boorstin served as the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of History and Technology. He became librarian of Congress in 1975.
As librarian, Boorstin tried to make the world’s largest library more attractive to the public. Under his direction, the library installed picnic tables and benches and established a center to encourage reading. He held the post until 1987, when he resigned to focus on his passion: writing about history.
“When he was researching he would say ‘Did you know this?’ or ‘Have you heard that?’” Loomis said. “He was like a child when talking about history. He got very excited.”
Boorstin is survived by his wife, Ruth, his three sons and six grandchildren.
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