Although the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, had seen the need for an archives to preserve the records of the Institution, the Smithsonian Institution Archives was established in 1891, when William Jones Rhees, who had been the Smithsonian Chief Clerk since 1852, was given the title Keeper of the Archives. Rhees served in the post until his death in 1907.
For the first half of the 20th century, the administrative staff of the Office of the Secretary cared for the historical records while maintaining the current files. In 1965, the mission of the Smithsonian Institution Archives became more research-oriented as the archives developed into a center for historical research of American science by making the archives' resources more accessible to historians through better identification, preservation, and cataloging of Smithsonian documents. Within two years, the Smithsonian Institution Archives became a separate line item in the Institution's budget and moved into new quarters within the Smithsonian Castle.
Beginning in 1970, the Archives entered an era of tremendous growth. Records survey and acquisition programs were initiated with most Smithsonian museums, research centers, and central administrative units, and the volume of historic and official records transferred to the Archives increased accordingly; expanded repository guides were published in 1971, 1978, and 1983; and an oral history program [link to Oral History page] to supplement the written record was established in 1973. The Archives moved into a new home in the Arts and Industries Building in 1976.
Highlights from the 1980s include the relocation and expansion of the Archives, a survey of photographic resources across the Institution, and the creation of the Smithsonian Videohistory program in 1987. The Videohistory Program continues to document the Smithsonian’s involvement in American science through videotaped interviews. By the late eighties, the Archives' space in the Arts and Industries Building had been completely filled. As a result, in 1988 the Archives leased around six thousand square feet of warehouse space in Virginia. Over five thousand cubic feet of records were initially transferred to the new facility from Arts and Industries.
In 1993, reorganization resulted in the creation of the Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives with an Archives Division and an Institutional History Division, as well as the National Collections Program. In the 1990s, the Archives entered the era of electronic information, establishing an electronic records program and creating an Archives website. In 1996, to commemorate the Smithsonian's sesquicentennial, the Archives published its fourth (and last) printed Guide to the Smithsonian Archives which described over 1,100 record units comprising some 15,500 cubic feet of archival material. This content was transitioned to the Smithsonian Institution Research and Information Resources website, where it is now possible to search online and link directly to the Archives’ finding aids. In 1997, the Archives began a program to store the records of many archives around the Smithsonian at Iron Mountain (formerly National Underground Storage) in Boyers, Pennsylvania.
In 1998, the name of the organization reverted back to its initial form, Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this time, a staffing structure was adopted with teams for records management, cataloging, and reference located in the Archives Division, while a Technical Services Division was created to ensure the long-term preservation of the materials that the Smithsonian Institution Archives holds in public trust with teams focused on preservation, electronic records, and data processing support.
In 2003, the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, initially funded by an endowment, was created to make conservation services available to all Smithsonian repositories. A formal Electronic Records Program was established in 2004, dedicated to the management and preservation of the Institution’s digital history.
The Institutional History Division made specialized databases of historical information and five thousand images available online through the Smithsonian Institution Research and Information Service, in addition to launching a combined history of the Smithsonian on the web.
The summer of 2006 heralded dramatic changes for the Archives. In August 2006, the Archives moved out of the Arts and Industries Building and into its new quarters in the Capital Gallery building. The Archives’ new space includes a state-of-the-art storage facility; a reading room; several special viewing and listening rooms; processing and preservation space; digital imaging and audiovisual processing facilities; an oral history interview studio; and a conservation lab. In 2007, the Joseph Henry Papers Project completed a forty-year effort to produce a twelve volume documentary edition on the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. In 2008, the Smithsonian Photographic Services was merged into the Archives to provide a home and care for the Institution’s collection of an estimated three million historical images. In 2009, the Smithsonian Photography Initiative also merged into the Archives to assist with dissemination of digital resources, and online programs and outreach. The Digital Services Division was formed at that time to bring together the electronic records program, the digitization services, and the web and new media teams to preserve and make accessible the Archives’ born digital and digitized archival materials.
Today the Archives holds some 5,096 collections comprising 35,161 cubic feet of archival documentation, as well as extensive digital resources.
- Chronology of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Bibliography of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Images of the Smithsonian Smithsonian Institution Archives