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Some Background History on the Libraries

Smithson This post has been inspired by last month's wonderful post from the Smithsonian Archives,
Records and Information Management Month: The Librarian, which features a wider discussion of libraries’ information management work.

1999-05.Staff.014 The Smithsonian Libraries was not officially created until the 1960s, but when the Institution was founded by Congress in 1846 it was meant to include a national library; to that end it was named a copyright depository, along with the Library of Congress, for all books published in the U.S. The first Librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, was appointed in 1848 and immediately perceived a need for standardized and shared cataloging for the nation’s libraries, anticipating functions later undertaken by the Library of Congress.

Unfortunately, the Smithsonian’s attempts to fulfill this role became unsustainable—the scientific researches and public exhibitions that were also part of the Institution’s mandate quickly started being crowded out of the original “Castle” building by the flood of books submitted for copyright in every conceivable subject, and the law was changed in the 1860s to assign this responsibility to the Library of Congress alone. But doing research and developing exhibitions both require library resources, so there continued to be un-official book collections on the Institution’s specific interests as it grew over the next 100 years.

One of these collections was the personal library of James Smithson, an English scientist whose bequest provided the original impetus and funding for the Institution that bears his name. We still hold his books and they are available to researchers like historian Heather Ewing whose recent biography of Smithson incorporated her detailed study of the notes he made in his books.

Today the Libraries includes 20 branches, each one serving a specific museum or research facility within the Smithsonian Institution. We acquire, catalog, and provide both printed and electronic resources to Smithsonian staff, to scholars around the world, and to you: Check out our website for our catalog as well as lots of great images, exhibitions, and digital collections!—Leslie Overstreet

One Comment

  1. Jennifer Wright

    So much history, so little time! This is a great supplement to the limited background information I put together for The Bigger Picture, but no single blog post (or even two) can capture the fascinating story of the Smithsonian Libraries. I encourage evryone to explore the Libraries’ website to learn more.

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