Basement and First Floor Plans of Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, 1971. Image no. MNH-2533B. Smithsonian Institution Archives.

For the Love of Bookshelves

On January 19, 1858 renovations to the library located in the West Wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building to increase space for books was completed.

Preliminary Elevation of the Smithsonian Institution Building's South Facade

At the beginning of December 2020, the Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian Institution Archives merged to become Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. This new partnership brings together two units dedicated to the care and accessibility of their collections to serve the information needs Smithsonian staff, scholars, and the public. From its founding on August 10, 1846, legislation provided for a building to house a museum with geological and mineralogical cabinets, a chemical laboratory, a gallery of art, lecture rooms, and a library. The Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, was the first building at the Institution and the library was installed in the West Wing in 1850. Improvements to the library began in 1857 which would allow for an increase in the amount of shelving for books.

Library in the Smithsonian Institution Building

On January 19, 1858 renovations to the library located in the West Wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building were completed. The new shelving was arranged in two stories of alcoves, with the lower alcove separately secured by a door. It was found necessary to secure the library collections on the lower alcove because with the previous "indiscriminate access" to books staff discovered "works in many cases mutilated, merely to avoid the labor of copying a few pages" and important sets of books "sometimes broken by actual theft" (Smithsonian Annual Report, 1857). With the newly renovated space, the library was able to better secure the books in its collections from being damaged or stolen. 

At its beginning, the main purpose of the Smithsonian Institution Building's library was to build a collection of materials that embodied the past and current state of scholarship both in the United States and around world. Towards this end, the library engaged in the procurement of . . .

. . . as perfect and extensive a series as possible of the transactions and proceedings of all the lerned societieis which now exists or have existed in different parts of the world. It is to works of this character that the student of science is obliged to refer to for the minute history of the progress of any special branch to which [they] may be devoted, and to acertain accurately what has been published on [their] particular subject previous to commencing [their] own labors . . . (Smithsonian Annual Report, 1858, pp. 36-37)

In 1858 there was one library location with a little over 4000 items in the collection; today there are twenty-one Smithsonian Library locations in Washington, DC; Maryland; New York; and Panama; and its collections consist of more than 2.1 million items; close to 500,000 pieces of trade literature; and some 10,000 cubic feet of special collection materials.

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