Smithsonian Libraries

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Smithsonian Libraries
Smithsonian logo color.svg
EstablishedFirst library established 1846
Modern SIL system established 1968 [1]
LocationWashington, DC; New York City, NY; Suitland and Edgewater, MD; Republic of Panama
Size2 million volumes [2]
Other information
Director Nancy E. Gwinn
Smithsonian Libraries

Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), formerly known as Smithsonian Institution Libraries, is a library system comprising 20 branch libraries serving the various Smithsonian Institution museums and research centers, as well as central support services which include a Book Conservation Laboratory and an Imaging Center. The Libraries serve Smithsonian Institution staff as well as the scholarly community and general public with information and reference support. Its collections number over 1.5 million volumes including 40,000 rare books and 2,000 manuscripts. The Libraries also holds the United States' largest trade literature collection, which includes over 300,000 commercial catalogs dating from the early nineteenth century and representing more than 30,000 companies. [1] [3]


The Libraries' collections focus primarily on science, art, history and culture, and museology. [4] SIL is continuously analyzing its mission and goals in order to best meet the information and knowledge needs of new generations of users, to strengthen research, and to reach through cyberspace those unable to visit the Smithsonian museums and research centers in person. [5]

The shared SIL Catalog [6] is part of the Smithsonian Research Information System (SIRIS) from which one can search 1.89 million records of text, images, video and sound files from across the Smithsonian Institution.

In 2008, SIL celebrated its 40th anniversary. Nancy E. Gwinn, PhD, was named director in 1997. [7]


As the largest and most diverse museum library in the world, SIL leads the Smithsonian in taking advantage of the opportunities of the digital society. SIL provides authoritative information and creates innovative services and programs for Smithsonian Institution researchers, scholars and curators, as well as the general public, to further their quest for knowledge. Through paper preservation and digital technologies, SIL ensures broad and enduring access to the Libraries’ collections for all users. [8]


The original library was founded by an Act of Congress on August 10, 1846, when the Smithsonian Institution was named a trust instrumentality of the United States. The Act created a Board of Regents for the Institution, and called for a building to house a museum with geological and mineralogical cabinets, a chemical laboratory, a gallery of art, lecture rooms, and a library. [1]

The Smithsonian Libraries system as it exists today was not established until 1968, when Secretary S. Dillon Ripley realized that the existing library organization was greatly in need of an overhaul. He created a new position, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and hired Russell Shank to fill the role. [1] Shank reorganized the library staff and procedures, and created a modern, unified system with central services and a union catalog. By 1977, when Shank left, the quality and research value of the scientific collections were recognized nationally, and SIL was invited to join the Association of Research Libraries. SIL was granted a seat on the executive board of the Federal Libraries and Information Centers Coordinating Committee. [1]

The late 1970s and 1980s also saw a growth in the number of Smithsonian Libraries branches, brought about by a range of donations to the Institution. In 1976, ten thousand rare scientific books and manuscripts were gifted to the Smithsonian by the Burndy Library, prompting the creation of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology under the Smithsonian umbrella. [9] Several years later, large donations of artifact collections led to the formation of new museums for subjects such as African art, American Indian culture and postal history and a new library branch was subsequently formed for each of these as well. [9]

The 1990s introduced an expansion of the Libraries' focus to improve their ability to reach and educate the general public. The introduction of electronic and Internet technology played a large role in spurring this new outreach endeavor. In 1999, under the leadership of director Robert Maloy, Smithsonian Libraries staff completed a fourteen-year long effort to create a public access online catalog, with 97 percent of their then-holdings gaining digital records. [9]

In March 2013, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries formally changed its name to Smithsonian Libraries "to simplify and strengthen the Libraries as part of an overall rebranding in the modern era". [10]

Early leadership (1846–1968)

John Murdoch, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution (1887-1892), sitting at a desk in the Jewett Room, United States National Museum Building (now known as the Arts & Industries Building). Library in United States National Museum Building.jpg
John Murdoch, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution (1887–1892), sitting at a desk in the Jewett Room, United States National Museum Building (now known as the Arts & Industries Building).


Collections and libraries


The collections held by the Libraries reflect the various disciplines and scholarly pursuits of the curators and researchers of the Smithsonian Institution. Strengths in the collections include the following areas: [4]

Books on shelves in the Libraries' Discovery Services Division, prior to assignment of subject and descriptive metadata Books on shelves.JPG
Books on shelves in the Libraries' Discovery Services Division, prior to assignment of subject and descriptive metadata

General collections libraries, with their subject specialties

Most of the Smithsonian Libraries are located in the Washington, D.C., area, where most of the Smithsonian Institution's museums and research centers are. Other locations include New York City, Suitland, Md., Edgewater, Md., and the Republic of Panama.C

American art, portraiture, American history and biography, and American crafts.

Supports work on history and culture of the African diaspora in the DC area and more broadly in the Western hemisphere. Subjects include Upper South, African American women, slavery and abolitionism, and religion and the African American community. It houses some library materials from the National Museum of African American History and Culture while the museum is under construction.

Plant systematics, botanical history, ethnobotany, botanical art/design/illustration, floriculture, arboriculture, integrated pest management, gardening, plantscaping, etc.

Design and decorative art from the Renaissance to the present.

Artistic traditions/cultures of the peoples of Asia. Chinese and Japanese art represent about half of the collection. [18]

Modern and contemporary art, including painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, photography, video, and emerging art forms.

Physical anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, forensic science, area studies.

Collections storage, research, and conservation.

Space and aviation history, air transport, astronomy/astrophysics, terrestrial and exogeology, remote sensing, spacecraft design and instrumentation, etc.

History of technology, all aspects of American history—social, cultural, political, and economic, history of everyday American life, etc.

General science, biology, ecology, evolution, biodiversity, geology, paleontology, conservation, etc. Includes sub-branches/satellite libraries in Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology, Mineral Sciences, Paleobiology.

Postal and philatelic history.

Veterinary medicine, pathology, genetics, nutrition, behavior, husbandry, wildlife conservation, biodiversity, zoo and aquarium horticulture.

Global change, population and community ecology, coastal ecosystems. Emphasis on Chesapeake Bay area.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Library in Panama has a branch at the research station on Barro Colorado Island. Barro Colorado Research.JPG
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Library in Panama has a branch at the research station on Barro Colorado Island.

Tropical biology, ecology, conservation, pharmacognosy, ecotourism, etc. Main site is in Panama City; branches in research stations on Barro Colorado Island on Gatun Lake, and on Colón Island, Bocas del Toro Province. [19]

All aspects of American Indian history and cultures, including architecture, health, law, education, music, dancing, religion, languages and literatures, Pow-wows, etc.

African visual arts, including architecture, painting, sculpture, prints, pottery, textiles, popular culture, photography, rock art.

Special collections

Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836. by Robert FitzRoy, published 1839. Cullman Library, SIL exhibition. Darwin's voyage on the Beagle - book.jpg
Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836. by Robert FitzRoy, published 1839. Cullman Library, SIL exhibition.

While all Smithsonian libraries hold some special collections material, two libraries comprise the Special Collections Department which is primarily dedicated to that purpose. [20] According to its mission statement, "The Special Collections Department arranges, describes, houses, and provides access to the rare books, manuscripts, and special collections held in the two dedicated special collections libraries of Smithsonian Institution Libraries." Access is provided to Smithsonian Institution curators, researchers, and other staff as well as outside scholars by appointment. [21] [22]

The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology contains 35,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts related to the history of science and technology. [23] Established in 1976 with a donation from Bern Dibner, the Dibner Library is housed in the National Museum of American History.

The Cullman Library of Natural History holds some 10,000 volumes published before 1840 in the fields of anthropology and natural sciences. [24] The Cullman Library is also located at the National Museum of Natural History.

Additionally, the National Air and Space Museum Library features special collections housed in both the Dewitt Clinton Ramsey Room and the Aerospace Legacy Materials Collection Gift Collection (ALM Collection). Located in the National Air and Space Museum's Mall location, the Dewitt Clinton Ramsey Room houses rare books, serials, oral histories, vertical files, and the Bella Landauer Collection of sheet music. Housed in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Research Annex in Landover, MD, the ALM Collection is a growing body of largely grey literature in the form of government manuals, reports, studies, and surveys capturing the history and evolution of civil aviation..

SIL exhibition: Picturing Words, the Power of Book Illustration. The Digital Services Division manages the online presence of SIL's exhibitions. Picturing Words, the Power of Book Illustration - exhibition.jpg
SIL exhibition: Picturing Words, the Power of Book Illustration. The Digital Services Division manages the online presence of SIL's exhibitions.

Digital initiatives

Digital initiatives are conducted by cross-disciplinary teams that include staff from Digital Services, Metadata/Cataloging, Reader Services, and other Libraries departments. They include publications, images, collections and objects such as online exhibits, webcasts, finding aids, digital versions of print editions, bibliographies, etc. [26]

Digitization projects

Digitization software

Macaw (metadata software) is an open-source metadata collection tool written by J. Richard, Digital Services Division. Macaw accomplishes 3 tasks in the scanning workflow: (1) import and manage images from input device (scanner or camera); (2) collect page-level metadata about physical aspects of scanned page; (3) post-processing and exporting digital book to other systems. [29] [30]

Other digital projects


Smithsonian Libraries exhibition: Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, & Turn. Paper Engineering - Fold, Pull, Pop, & Turn -- exhibition.JPG
Smithsonian Libraries exhibition: Paper Engineering: Fold, Pull, Pop, & Turn.

The Libraries has created several exhibitions, often in collaboration with other departments, organizations, and scholars within and outside the Smithsonian. Some of the exhibitions have a digital component; examples include:

Additionally, SIL is the home of Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web. This database, which is international in scope, also includes all SIL exhibitions.

Lecture series

They include:

Research opportunities, fellowships, internships

SIL offers research opportunities for historians, librarians, pre-doctoral and post-doctoral scholars wishing to conduct research in the history of science and technology or in areas pertaining to other special collections: [35]

Also offered are internships opportunities for students and others. [36]

Smithsonian Institution webpage


The Smithsonian Libraries Fact Sheet states that the "Smithsonian Libraries, though a plural noun, is consistently followed by a singular verb because it is considered a system of libraries, with individual locations operating under the aegis of a central administration and adhering to a common mission." [4]

Related Research Articles

Smithsonian Institution Group of museums and research centers administered by the United States government

The Smithsonian Institution, often referred to simply as the Smithsonian, is a trust instrumentality, an organization established by the U.S. government as a public trust. It was founded on August 10, 1846, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge" and is composed as a group of museums and research centers. The institution is named after its founding donor, British scientist James Smithson. It was originally organized as the United States National Museum, but that name ceased to exist as an administrative entity in 1967.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is an art museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., focusing on Asian art. The Sackler Gallery and the Freer Gallery of Art together form the Smithsonian's national museums of Asian art in the United States. The Freer and Sackler galleries house the largest Asian art research library in the country.

Anacostia Community Museum Community museum in Washington, D.C.

The Anacostia Community Museum is a community museum in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in the United States. It is one of twenty museums under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution and was the first federally funded community museum in the United States. The museum, founded in 1967, was created with the intention to bring aspects of the Smithsonian museums, located on the National Mall, to the Anacostia neighborhood, with the hope that community members from the neighborhood would visit the main Smithsonian museums. It became federally funded in 1970 and focuses on the community in and around Anacostia in its exhibitions. This museum also houses a library.

Federal Art Project New Deal relief program to fund the visual arts

The Federal Art Project (1935–1943) was a New Deal program to fund the visual arts in the United States. Under national director Holger Cahill, it was one of five Federal Project Number One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the largest of the New Deal art projects. It was created not as a cultural activity, but as a relief measure to employ artists and artisans to create murals, easel paintings, sculpture, graphic art, posters, photography, theatre scenic design, and arts and crafts. The WPA Federal Art Project established more than 100 community art centers throughout the country, researched and documented American design, commissioned a significant body of public art without restriction to content or subject matter, and sustained some 10,000 artists and craft workers during the Great Depression.

National Museum of American History Museum in Washington, D.C., United States

The National Museum of American History: Kenneth E. Behring Center collects, preserves, and displays the heritage of the United States in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific, and military history. Among the items on display is the original Star-Spangled Banner. The museum is part of the Smithsonian Institution and located on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

National Museum of Natural History Natural history museum in Washington, D.C.

The National Museum of Natural History is a natural history museum administered by the Smithsonian Institution, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., United States. It has free admission and is open 364 days a year. In 2016, with 7.1 million visitors, it was the eleventh most visited museum in the world and the most visited natural history museum in the world. Opened in 1910, the museum on the National Mall was one of the first Smithsonian buildings constructed exclusively to hold the national collections and research facilities. The main building has an overall area of 1.5 million square feet (140,000 m2) with 325,000 square feet (30,200 m2) of exhibition and public space and houses over 1,000 employees.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Design museum in Manhattan, New York

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum is a design museum located in the Upper East Side's Museum Mile in Manhattan, New York City. It is one of 19 museums that fall under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution and is one of three Smithsonian facilities located in New York City, the other two being the George Gustav Heye Center in Bowling Green and the Archives of American Art New York Research Center in the Flatiron District. It is the only museum in the United States devoted to historical and contemporary design. Its collections and exhibitions explore approximately 240 years of design aesthetic and creativity.

Smithsonian American Art Museum Museum in Washington, D.C., United States

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is a museum in Washington, D.C., part of the Smithsonian Institution. Together with its branch museum, the Renwick Gallery, SAAM holds one of the world's largest and most inclusive collections of art, from the colonial period to the present, made in the United States. The museum has more than 7,000 artists represented in the collection. Most exhibitions take place in the museum's main building, the old Patent Office Building, while craft-focused exhibitions are shown in the Renwick Gallery.

Artstor is a nonprofit organization that builds and distributes the Digital Library, an online resource of more than 2 million images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and sciences, and Shared Shelf, a Web-based cataloging and image management software service that allows institutions to catalog, edit, store, and share local collections.

The Burndy Library is one of the world's largest collections of books on the history of science and technology. Founded in 1941 in Norwalk, Connecticut by the electrical engineer, industrialist, and historian Bern Dibner, the library holdings include important scientific literature from antiquity to the 20th century. Highlights of the collection include one of the world's most complete sets of the works of Isaac Newton, including books owned and annotated by Newton, as well as some sixty manuscripts by Newton, and important manuscript and print materials by Louis Pasteur, a 1544 edition of Archimedes' mathematical text Philosophi ac Geometrae and many important original works from the 18th and 19th centuries. Generally, the collection's strengths are in the early modern period, and include strong holdings in the history of mathematics, astronomy, and color theory.

Bern Dibner

Bern Dibner was an electrical engineer, industrialist, and historian of science and technology. He originated two major US library collections in the history of science and technology.

Library of Congress Research library that officially serves the United States Congress

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Archives of American Art

The Archives of American Art is the largest collection of primary resources documenting the history of the visual arts in the United States. More than 20 million items of original material are housed in the Archives' research centers in Washington, D.C. and New York City.

The Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) is the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. SIA is located in Washington, D.C., United States, and maintains the archives related to the history of the 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park, 9 research facilities, and the people of the Smithsonian.

Smithsonian Gardens

The Smithsonian Gardens, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, is responsible for the "landscapes, interiorscapes, and horticulture-related collections and exhibits", which serve as an outdoor extension of the Smithsonian's museums and learning spaces in Washington, D.C. Established in 1972 as a groundskeeping and horticulture program, Smithsonian Gardens currently manages 180 acres of gardens on the National Mall, 64,000 square feet of greenhouse production space, and the Archives of American Gardens, a research collection of over 60,000 photographs and archival records covering American landscape history from the 1870s to the present.

Wikipedian in residence Professional role in Wikipedia development

A Wikipedian in residence or Wikimedian in residence (WiR) is a Wikipedia editor, a Wikipedian, who accepts a placement with an institution, typically an art gallery, library, archive, or museum, learned society, or institute of higher education to facilitate Wikipedia entries related to that institution's mission, encourage and assist it to release material under open licences, and to develop the relationship between the host institution and the Wikimedia community. A Wikipedian in residence generally helps to coordinate Wikipedia-related outreach events between the GLAM and the general public such as editathons.

Smithsonian Affiliations

Smithsonian Affiliations is a division of the Smithsonian Institution that establishes long-term partnerships with non-Smithsonian museums and educational and cultural organizations, in order to share collections, exhibitions and educational strategies and conduct joint research.

KE Software is a formerly Australian-owned computer software company based in Manchester, United Kingdom, which specialises in collection management programs for museums, galleries and archives. The Axiell Group purchased the firm in 2014.

Nancy E. Gwinn American librarian and administrator

Nancy E. Gwinn is an American librarian and administrator. She was the director of the Smithsonian Libraries, the world's largest museum library system, from 1997 until her retirement in 2020.

John Y. Cole

John Y. Cole is an American librarian, historian, and author. He was the founding director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress and in 2016 became the first official historian of the Library of Congress.


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