The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution: A Legislated Relationship

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  • This extensive essay explores the relationship of the Library of Congress with the Smithsonian Institution. The Library developed relationships with other national libraries over the years, but none has been as close and intertwined than its association with the Smithsonian Institution and its library, prompting passage of legislation to regulate the relationship between the two agencies.
  • The author provides background leading to the 1846 law that founded the Smithsonian Institution. The U. S. Congress, uncertain of the Smithsonian's exact mission, established a Board of Regents to create and oversee the Institution, and called for construction of a building to house a museum, laboratory, library, art gallery, and lecture rooms.
  • The Board of Regents appointed renowned physicist Joseph Henry as the first Smithsonian Secretary. Henry wanted to craft a premier scientific institution with only a small library consisting primarily of materials that could be loaned to scientists to support their research. The Board of Regents, however, pushed for a library with a larger role and encouraged Henry to hire Brown University's librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, as his first assistant secretary. Jewett envisioned creating a multi-faceted national library at the Smithsonian, but open clashes with Henry about the direction of the library and disputes over rising costs led to Jewett's firing in 1854.
  • The controversy with Jewett convinced Henry that the function of the Smithsonian's library should be more clearly defined. Furthermore, the library experienced rapid growth from the international exchange program Henry had instituted in 1848 after launching the "Contributions to Knowledge" series, along with copyright deposits mandated by Congress.
  • The Library of Congress, meanwhile, had grown to only 55,000 volumes by 1850, and two-thirds of that was destroyed by fire in late 1851. After a fireproof room was built for the library in the Capitol, its collection grew to nearly 80,000 volumes by 1861, but the Library had many deficiencies. When Assistant Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford was appointed Librarian of Congress on December 31, 1864, he became the first person truly qualified to hold the job. Eager to create a great national library for the American people, Spofford secured congressional funding to expand the Library and established the requirement that copyrighted materials be deposited there.
  • The Smithsonian suffered a fire in the Castle building in early 1865. None of the main library materials were lost, but after another, smaller fire the following year, Joseph Henry was eager to take action. He and Spofford proposed to both the Joint Committee on the Library and the Board of Regents that the Smithsonian library be deposited in the new and empty fireproof wings of the Library of Congress. An act was signed into law on April 5, 1866 to make the transfer, and it defined the relationship that exists to this day.
  • Smithsonian library materials were catalogued, shelved and integrated into the rest of the Library of Congress' collection, but the scientific materials were kept separate. The Smithsonian also did not surrender ownership of its library, known officially as the Smithsonian Deposit, which continued to grow through the international exchange program.
  • In 1867, Librarian of Congress Spofford received congressional authorization to print extra copies of official federal publications for exchange with other countries as a way to enhance the utility of the Library's collections. Joseph Henry asked the Department of State to contact foreign ministries about their interest in the plan. After receiving positive feedback, Henry and Spofford agreed to establish a routine for sending official documents to universities and societies, in addition to their official national counterparts. The exchange program was so successful that in 1881, the U. S. State Department designated the Smithsonian as the official international exchange agent for the United States.
  • The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian were once again involved in a program that would help consolidate the Library's position as the national library. The two agencies also began the practice of mutually supporting the Deposit through salary subvention, a practice that continued until the 1950's.
  • The growing relationship between the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress required constant attention, but the 1866 law served as motivation to resolve problems. When success of the exchange programs led to space and retrieval problems at the Library in the 1870's, Assistant Secretary Spencer Baird and other staff developed large personal book collections in order to have needed documents at hand. When Henry died in 1878, Baird was appointed secretary and donated his extensive personal library to found the new U. S. National Museum Library and create "working collections" near staff offices.
  • The Smithsonian Deposit volumes remained a critical resource for the Institution's research staff, however, so when the Library of Congress Building opened in 1900, Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley, who had succeeded Baird, reaffirmed its ownership of, and need of access to, the Deposit. Provisions were made to implement twice-daily delivery of books to the Smithsonian, but Langley continued to build the local collections.
  • The agreements between the Library and the Smithsonian were reviewed whenever the leadership of either institution changed. Operations at both followed past patterns until 1944, when Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish announced a reorganization that discontinued the Smithsonian Division, with custodial and reference functions absorbed by two separate Library divisions.
  • In the early 1950s, Smithsonian Librarian Leila F. Clark recommended to Secretary Leonard Carmichael that its "working collections" at over forty locations be recognized as constituting the Institution's library, instead of the Deposit, and holdings in specific scientific subjects be maintained and enlarged. In a 1958 letter to Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford, Carmichael gave assurance that the Deposit would not be withdrawn from the Library, agreed to continue sending the Smithsonian's publications to the Library, and assumed full responsibility for the Smithsonian Librarian's salary.
  • Policies were reviewed again in 1964 after S. Dillon Ripley became Smithsonian Secretary. He and Mumford agreed that Smithsonian staff should have access to both Deposit and Library of Congress books for indefinite periods and should have reserved work spaces provided. Ripley also realized the need for the Smithsonian's library to be organized and appointed Russell Shank as the first director of the new Smithsonian Institution Libraries.
  • The Smithsonian's growth during the Ripley years included new programs and collection expansions that required scholarly works to support historical context and documentation research. In a 1971 letter to Ripley, Librarian of Congress Mumford wrote of his concern that the Smithsonian had departed from its traditional role of collector of artifacts by pursuing printed material that the Library of Congress considered to be under its domain. Ripley responded that he did not view the Smithsonian's library activity to be in competition with the Library of Congress, but the disagreement was passed on to the successors of both Mumford and Ripley.
  • In 1992, controversies over the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the National Park Service all pursuing the same acquisitions prompted U.S. Senator Ted Stevens to request the General Accounting Office investigate the competitive bidding process for historic artifacts. The GAO concluded that the issue was between the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, and made recommendations to clarify organizational roles and promote solutions to avoid potential competitive bidding problems.
  • The author concludes her essay with several illustrations demonstrating how America's two largest national cultural organizations have complied with those recommendations and continue to work together to maintain and enhance their long-standing legal and historical relationship.


  • Spofford, Ainsworth Rand 1825-1908
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Jewett, Charles C (Charles Coffin) 1816-1868
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Mumford, L. Quincy (Lawrence Quincy) 1903-1982
  • Stevens, Ted
  • Clark, Leila Forbes
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Carmichael, Leonard 1898-1973
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Shank, Russell 1925-
  • Board of Regents
  • Library of Congress
  • Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL)
  • United States Congress
  • United States General Accounting Office
  • United States Dept. of State
  • National Archives and Record Administration (NARA)
  • Board of Regents Committee on Libraries
  • Smithsonian Deposit (Library of Congress)
  • Smithsonian Institution General History
  • International Exchange Service (IES)
  • Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge (Publication)
  • United States. Congress. Joint Committee on the Library
  • Library of Congress Relations with the Smithsonian
  • Librarian of Congress
  • Smithsonian Library


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Includes 7 photographs.

Contained within

Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress: for Congress, the Nation & the World (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Secretaries
  • SI, Early History
  • Exchanges, Literary and scientific
  • History
  • Librarians
  • Smithson Bequest
  • Assistant Secretaries
  • Copyright
  • International exchanges
  • Library science
  • Controversies
  • Libraries
  • Acquisitions (Libraries)
  • Libraries--History

Physical description

Number of pages: 12; Page numbers: 91-102

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