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Agency history, 1846-2019

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  • Turner, Jane A
  • Jewett, Charles C (Charles Coffin) 1816-1868
  • Adler, Cyrus 1863-1940
  • True, Frederick William 1858-1914
  • Maloy, Robert
  • Brockett, Paul 1872-1946
  • Corbin, William L
  • Clark, Leila F
  • Blanchard, Ruth E
  • Murdoch, John 1852-1925
  • Watkins, J. Elfreth (John Elfreth) 1852-1903
  • Huffer, Mary A
  • Shank, Russell 1925-2012
  • Smith, Barbara J (Barbara Jeanne) 1939-
  • Gwinn, Nancy E
  • Miller, Scott E (Scott Everett)
  • Choate, Rufus 1799-1859
  • Marsh, George Perkins 1801-1882
  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Ripley, S. Dillon (Sidney Dillon) 1913-2001
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries Librarian
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries Office of the Director
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries New Media Office
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries Administrative Officer
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library
  • Library of Congress
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • United States National Museum
  • Arts and Industries Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Dibner Library
  • Joseph F. Cullman Library
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries


Agency History


  • This is an agency history. It does not describe actual records. The Smithsonian Institution Archives uses these histories as brief accounts of the origin, development, and functions of an office or administrative unit to set that unit in its historical context. To find information on record holdings, please double-click the highlighted field "Creator/Author", which will open on a brief view of relevant records.
  • "About us: History of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries",, September 13, 2002
  • "Phase-out of Smithsonian Intenrational Exchange Service", Robert S. Hoffmann, Assistant Secretary for Science, May 20, 1992
  • Guide to the Smithsonian Archives, 1996
  • SI Email Announcement, "The debut of Smithsonian Libraries and Archives", March 26, 2020
  • Smithsonian Institution, About, Bios, Scott Miller,, accessed January 28, 2022
  • Smithsonian Institution Archives, History, Research Centers, Smithsonian Libraies,, accessed February 1, 2022
  • Biodiversity Heritage Library, About, History of BHL,, accessed February 2, 2022
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Annual Report, 2002,, accessed February 2, 2022
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Annual Report, 2010,, accessed May 17, 2023
  • Smithsonian Libraries, Annual Report, 2011,, accessed May 17, 2023
  • Smithsonian Institution Directory, 1999 and 2002
  • In the decade after the bequest that English scientist, James Smithson, left to the United States in 1829, the U.S. Congress debated how to use his generous gift. Senators Rufus Choate and George Perkins Marsh argued for the creation of a great national library. Others argued for a national university or national museum. When the Smithsonian was founded on August 10, 1846, the 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's enabling act provided that both the new Institution and the Library of Congress were given copyright deposit status. The Smithsonian Board of Regents selected American physicist Joseph Henry as the first Secretary of the fledgling enterprise, and directed Henry to hire Charles C. Jewett, a noted librarian at Brown University, as the first Assistant Secretary in charge of the library.
  • Henry preferred to use the bequest to support basic scientific research, arguing that a library's impact would only be local. Though Henry supported Jewett's plans for creating a centralized bibliographic service and for surveying the nation's libraries, the two clashed over the size and contents of a library, since Henry feared that the costs of the library would consume the income from the Smithson fund. In 1855, following a very public dispute, Henry fired Jewett, and copyright deposit status for the Smithsonian library ended three years later.
  • In 1866, following two damaging fires in the Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Henry negotiated with the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress to move the Smithsonian's library, by then one of the largest in the nation with forty thousand volumes. A decision was made to name the library holdings the "Smithsonian Deposit," and move them to the Library of Congress, with the Smithsonian retaining ownership of the books. As the collection grew to nearly six hundred thousand volumes by 1950, the Library of Congress found it increasingly difficult to maintain. In 1953, Smithsonian Secretary Leonard Carmichael agreed to Librarian of Congress Luther Evans's request to integrate the Smithsonian Deposit volumes into the Library of Congress's collections. Although the Smithsonian gave up control of the Deposit, it never officially relinquished ownership. Today, the Smithsonian regularly borrows volumes from the Deposit, as well as other books, at the Library of Congress.
  • In addition to the Smithsonian Deposit, the Smithsonian also created an additional library. This library emerged after Henry's death in 1878, when Assistant Secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird was named Secretary. Baird understood the curators' needs to have books and journals in close proximity to specimen and artifact collections. Overcrowded conditions in the Library of Congress made retrieval of Deposit volumes extremely difficult. After the Smithsonian's United States National Museum (now the Arts and Industries Building) opened in 1881, Baird donated his extensive personal library to establish the United States National Museum Library.
  • Smithsonian library collections were never housed centrally, but rather included a central reference section and thirteen topical libraries in curatorial areas. Today there are thirty-five such local libraries. By 1964, the libraries contained over 430,000 volumes in nearly eighty locations spread throughout the Smithsonian, in seven cities. When Secretary S. Dillon Ripley assumed office in 1964, he reorganized the network of sectional libraries under a central Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Over the next decade, the library staff was reorganized, the books were consolidated, and automated access to collections was developed, creating a unified system with central support services and a union catalog. In the 1980s, new museums and collections were acquired by the Institution, with new topical libraries covering the fields of African art, philately and postal history, and Native Americans. Initially library locations were known as branches and sometime in or around 2000 the locations were then referred too as libraries. With a gift of ten thousand scientific rare books and manuscripts from the Burndy Library in 1976, the Smithsonian created the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. In 2002, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History became the second largest rare book repository when it opened in the National Museum of Natural History.
  • While the Smithsonian Institution Libraries' primary mission is to support the research and information needs of Smithsonian staff, in the 1990s the Libraries began to make its collections more visible and useful to a broader public, through automation and digitization via the Internet. The Libraries' first online public access catalog went live in 1985. A New Media Office, organized in 2002, operates an imaging center that produces electronic editions of rare scientific works and other specialized collections for use on the web. Since 1991, the Libraries' Exhibition Gallery has also featured volumes in thematic exhibitions open to the public.
  • In 2006 the Smithsonian Institution Libraries took up administrative responsibility for the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a consortium of member organizations whose collections form the world's largest open access digital library for biodiversity literature. In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries changed their name to Smithsonian Libraries.
  • Today the Libraries consist of twenty-one branch libraries in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Edgewater and Suitland, Maryland; and the Republic of Panama, holding over 1.5 million volumes, as well as manuscripts, journals, and electronic media in natural history, history of science and technology, anthropology, philately and postal history, African and Asian art, American art and portraiture, aviation and space exploration, horticulture, decorative arts and design, tropical biology, museology, and Native American and African American history and culture. Special collections include forty thousand rare books, and large holdings in Worlds Fairs and International Expositions, Manufacturer's Trade Catalogs, and scientific manuscripts.
  • Charles C. Jewitt was the first Librarian, serving from 1848 to 1855, when he was dismissed by Secretary Joseph Henry. Jane A. Turner was responsible for the library into the 1880's. Frederick William True seems to have been the Library's Administrative Officer, 1881-1887, succeeded by John Murdoch, 1887-1892; J. Elfreth Watkins, 1892; and Cyrus Adler, 1892-1904. Cyrus Adler (1905-1908) and Frederick William True (1911-1914) served as Assistant Secetary in Charge of Library and Exchanges. Paul Brockett was Assistant Librarian, 1914-1925. William L. Corbin served as Librarian, 1924-1942, and was succeeded by Leila F. Clark, 1942-1957; Ruth E. Blanchard, 1957-1964; and Mary A. Huffer (Acting), 1964-1967. Russell Shank was appointed Director of Smithsonian Institution Libraries, serving 1968-1977, followed by Robert Maloy, 1979-1987; Barbara J. Smith, 1989-1997; and Nancy E. Gwinn, 1998-2019. After Gwinn's retirement, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries and the Smithsonian Institution Archives began the process of integrating into the Smithsonian Libraries and Archives. Scott E. Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support served as Interim Director, Smithsonian Libraries and Archives, 2020-2021.
  • For a history of the larger creating unit, refer to "Forms part of" above.

Repository Loc.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Capital Gallery, Suite 3000, MRC 507; 600 Maryland Avenue, SW; Washington, DC 20024-2520


  • 1846
  • 1846-2019


  • Special libraries
  • Museum libraries
  • Libraries
  • Museums
  • Rare book libraries
  • Libraries and museums
  • Museum exhibits


Mixed archival materials

Local number

SIA AH00377

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