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Celebrating a Centennial: 100 Years at the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library

Three Cheers for 100 Years of Fine Arts research at the Smithsonian!

Architectural drawing of building showing West Wing, West Court, North Wing, South Pavilion, East Court and East Wing.
Floor plan of the U.S. National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History, noting the alcove in the West Court that was home to the original AA/PG Library.

The largest art library of the Smithsonian Institution hits a major milestone on July 1, 2020: the American Art & Portrait Gallery (AA/PG) Library celebrates its centennial. And in that 100 years, the Library has changed its name more times than its staff would care to admit (ok, we will admit it—six times.) The Smithsonian was founded in 1846 and held a nascent collection of art and art publications. According to an early staff person, “It has always been a matter of sentiment…that the Institution should have an Art Room, and that there should be in this Art Room a collection of books relating to the fine arts.”1  In fact, it was the Smithsonian’s first librarian who cared for the paintings and sculpture, so naturally the Smithsonian collected books on the aesthetic qualities of the fine arts from its earliest days.

But in 1920, Congress allotted resources for the Smithsonian’s department of fine arts to become its own separately funded, distinct museum—the Smithsonian National Gallery of Artwhich has an interesting history. At that time, the scattered collection of books on the fine arts were brought together to form the nucleus of the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art Library, as the first fine arts library at the Smithsonian Institution, and of the federal government of the United States

Early 20th century photo strip with three black and white photos of young woman, holding book, standing next to book shelves.
Lucile Torrey Barrett Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Arts Librarian 1937-1942, photo by RP Tolman. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7433, Box 3, Folder: Scrapbook A-N

One hundred years ago, the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art Library was shelved in a tiny alcove in what is now the National Museum of Natural History, barely a few hundred books, with no staff to manage its care and growth. It grew slowly but steadily, supporting exhibitions in the Gallery’s rooms at the Natural History Museum in all periods of international art history. In the 1960s, the library was strengthened when it was re-dedicated to also support the brand new National Portrait Gallery, along with the National Collection of Fine Arts, and the library moved from its small alcove to its own large, beautiful space in the Patent Office Building.  

Today, in 2020, the American Art & Portrait Gallery Library spreads across two floors of the Victor Building with its more than 180,000 books and journals, its half a million files of ephemera, and a team of art librarian professionals to see to its continued success. The Library supports the mission of the Archives of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Renwick Gallery through its comprehensive resources in American art and biographyIt serves the specialized research needs of the Smithsonian staff and affiliated fellows and interns by building, managing, and preserving the library collection and providing in-depth research services. It also serves non-Smithsonian scholars and the community through its public hours, interlibrary lending and reference services. 

The Library staff is proud to support the ongoing success of arts research and scholarship at the Smithsonian. The robust Fellowship Program at the American Art Museum, now in its 50th year, has allowed emerging and established scholars to engage with the Library’s immense research resources, and thfellows who have worked in the AA/PG Library go on to write significant publications with new narratives, curate important exhibitions, and share a love of art by teaching students in art history and the humanities. The Library itself has been host to hundreds of interns, helping the next generation of art information professionals succeed. The AA/PG Library has been an indispensable source for curators, scholars, art enthusiasts and collectors, educators and students in the United States and beyond 

As we look to the futureAA/PG continues to work toward its goal to be the foremost library in the world dedicated to American art and portraiture. To that end, the library will continue to add collections that reflect the depth and breadth of that subject matter, to expand our scope to highlight historically marginalized voices in American history, and to care for, organize and make these resources accessible

Library reading room with low library shelving. Open reference book in foreground.
Current AA/PG Reading Room, photo by Matailong Du

In 2021, the AA/PG Library will undergo a renovation to its primary area of service, increasing security of collections, refreshing outdated and damaged fixtures, enhancing programming areas, and creating spaces to be more collaborative. The plan will transform the AA/PG Library by enhancing social interaction, cross-disciplinary learning, and propel the look and function of such a prestigious library into the next century. The Art & Artist Files collection, one of the jewels of the AA/PG Library, will have important investment in housing and organization, as it moves from nearly 100yearold filing cabinets to purpose-built new housing. The Library aims to increase digital and physical findability, making our spectacular materials available to more people all over the world.

As we move into our next century, we need your help to make this growth possible, and to further enhance the quality of American art and historical research! To learn about opportunities for support, please contact the Smithsonian Libraries’ Advancement Office at or 202.633.2241. 

Digital drawing of library space. Periodical shelves along wall on left, tan reference desk on right. Tables in background.
AA/PG Library rendering of renovated entrance, planned 2021



Resources Consulted: 

1 – Letter from Paul Brockett, Asst Librarian, to W. de C. Ravenel on what to do with the art books in “The Art Room” and a note that the Secretary would have to decide if books held in the Castle could go to the new NGA Library, November 15, 1919. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 311, Box 016 Folder: 5 

Annual report of the Smithsonian Institution, U.S. National Museum. Washington :G.P.O.,1907-1951. Consulted years:  1907, 1917, 1924, 

Report on the National Gallery of Art” from Report of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution1921 

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 311, Box 016 Folder: 5 and Record Unit 463, boxes 1, 2, 4. 

One Comment

  1. Baasil Wilder


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