Smithsonian Libraries (SIL), formerly known as Smithsonian Institution Libraries, is a library system comprising 20 branch libraries serving the various Smithsonian Institution museums and research centers, as well as central support services which include a Book Conservation Laboratory and an Imaging Center. The Libraries serve Smithsonian Institution staff as well as the scholarly community and general public with information and reference support. Its collections number over 1.5 million volumes including 40,000 rare books and 2,000 manuscripts. The Libraries also holds the United States' largest trade literature collection, which includes over 300,000 commercial catalogs dating from the early nineteenth century and representing more than 30,000 companies.
The Libraries' collections focus primarily on science, art, history and culture, and museology. SIL is continuously analyzing its mission and goals in order to best meet the information and knowledge needs of new generations of users, to strengthen research, and to reach through cyberspace those unable to visit the Smithsonian museums and research centers in person.
The shared SIL Catalog is part of the Smithsonian Research Information System (SIRIS) from which one can search 1.89 million records of text, images, video and sound files from across the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2008, SIL celebrated its 40th anniversary. Since 1997, the Director has been Nancy E. Gwinn, Ph.D.
As the largest and most diverse museum library in the world, SIL leads the Smithsonian in taking advantage of the opportunities of the digital society. SIL provides authoritative information and creates innovative services and programs for Smithsonian Institution researchers, scholars and curators, as well as the general public, to further their quest for knowledge. Through paper preservation and digital technologies, SIL ensures broad and enduring access to the Libraries’ collections for all users.
The original library was founded by an Act of Congress on August 10, 1846, when the Smithsonian Institution was named a trust instrumentality of the United States. The Act created a Board of Regents for the Institution, and called 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 Libraries system as it exists today was not established until 1968, when Secretary S. Dillon Ripley realized that the existing library organization was greatly in need of an overhaul. He created a new position, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, and hired Russell Shank to fill the role. Shank reorganized the library staff and procedures, and created a modern, unified system with central services and a union catalog. By 1977, when Shank left, the quality and research value of the scientific collections were recognized nationally, and SIL was invited to join the Association of Research Libraries. SIL was granted a seat on the executive board of the Federal Libraries and Information Centers Coordinating Committee.
The late 1970s and 1980s also saw a growth in the number of Smithsonian Libraries branches, brought about by a range of donations to the Institution. In 1976, ten thousand rare scientific books and manuscripts were gifted to the Smithsonian by the Burndy Library, prompting the creation of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology under the Smithsonian umbrella. Several years later, large donations of artifact collections led to the formation of new museums for subjects such as African art, American Indian culture and postal history and a new library branch was subsequently formed for each of these as well.
The 1990s introduced an expansion of the Libraries' focus to improve their ability to reach and educate the general public. The introduction of electronic and Internet technology played a large role in spurring this new outreach endeavor. In 1999, under the leadership of director Robert Maloy, Smithsonian Libraries staff completed a fourteen-year long effort to create a public access online catalog, with 97 percent of their then-holdings gaining digital records.
In March 2013, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries formally changed its name to Smithsonian Libraries "to simplify and strengthen the Libraries as part of an overall rebranding in the modern era".
The collections held by the Libraries reflect the various disciplines and scholarly pursuits of the curators and researchers of the Smithsonian Institution. Strengths in the collections include the following areas:
Most of the Smithsonian Libraries are located in the Washington, D.C., area, where most of the Smithsonian Institution's museums and research centers are. Other locations include New York City, Suitland, Md., Edgewater, Md., and the Republic of Panama.C
American art, portraiture, American history and biography, and American crafts.
Supports work on history and culture of the African diaspora in the DC area and more broadly in the Western hemisphere. Subjects include Upper South, African American women, slavery and abolitionism, and religion and the African American community. It houses some library materials from the National Museum of African American History and Culture while the museum is under construction.
Plant systematics, botanical history, ethnobotany, botanical art/design/illustration, floriculture, arboriculture, integrated pest management, gardening, plantscaping, etc.
Design and decorative art from the Renaissance to the present.
Artistic traditions/cultures of the peoples of Asia. Chinese and Japanese art represent about half of the collection.
Modern and contemporary art, including painting, sculpture, drawings, prints, photography, video, and emerging art forms.
Physical anthropology, archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, forensic science, area studies.
Collections storage, research, and conservation.
Space and aviation history, air transport, astronomy/astrophysics, terrestrial and exogeology, remote sensing, spacecraft design and instrumentation, etc.
History of technology, all aspects of American history—social, cultural, political, and economic, history of everyday American life, etc.
General science, biology, ecology, evolution, biodiversity, geology, paleontology, conservation, etc. Includes sub-branches/satellite libraries in Invertebrate and Vertebrate Zoology, Mineral Sciences, Paleobiology.
Postal and philatelic history.
Veterinary medicine, pathology, genetics, nutrition, behavior, husbandry, wildlife conservation, biodiversity, zoo and aquarium horticulture.
Global change, population and community ecology, coastal ecosystems. Emphasis on Chesapeake Bay area.
Tropical biology, ecology, conservation, pharmacognosy, ecotourism, etc. Main site is in Panama City; branches in research stations on Barro Colorado Island on Gatun Lake, and on Colón Island, Bocas del Toro Province. 
All aspects of American Indian history and cultures, including architecture, health, law, education, music, dancing, religion, languages and literatures, Pow-wows, etc.
African visual arts, including architecture, painting, sculpture, prints, pottery, textiles, popular culture, photography, rock art.
While all Smithsonian libraries hold some special collections material, two libraries comprise the Special Collections Department which is primarily dedicated to that purpose. According to its mission statement, "The Special Collections Department arranges, describes, houses, and provides access to the rare books, manuscripts, and special collections held in the two dedicated special collections libraries of Smithsonian Institution Libraries." Access is provided to Smithsonian Institution curators, researchers, and other staff as well as outside scholars by appointment.
The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology contains 35,000 books and 2,000 manuscripts related to the history of science and technology. Established in 1976 with a donation from Bern Dibner, the Dibner Library is housed in the National Museum of American History.
The Cullman Library of Natural History holds some 10,000 volumes published before 1840 in the fields of anthropology and natural sciences. The Cullman Library is also located at the National Museum of Natural History.
Additionally, the National Air and Space Museum Library features special collections housed in both the Dewitt Clinton Ramsey Room and the Aerospace Legacy Materials Collection Gift Collection (ALM Collection). Located in the National Air and Space Museum's Mall location, the Dewitt Clinton Ramsey Room houses rare books, serials, oral histories, vertical files, and the Bella Landauer Collection of sheet music. Housed in the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Research Annex in Landover, MD, the ALM Collection is a growing body of largely grey literature in the form of government manuals, reports, studies, and surveys capturing the history and evolution of civil aviation..
Digital initiatives are conducted by cross-disciplinary teams that include staff from Digital Services, Metadata/Cataloging, Reader Services, and other Libraries departments. They include publications, images, collections and objects such as online exhibits, webcasts, finding aids, digital versions of print editions, bibliographies, etc.
Macaw (metadata software) is an open-source metadata collection tool written by J. Richard, Digital Services Division. Macaw accomplishes 3 tasks in the scanning workflow: (1) import and manage images from input device (scanner or camera); (2) collect page-level metadata about physical aspects of scanned page; (3) post-processing and exporting digital book to other systems.
The Libraries has created several exhibitions, often in collaboration with other departments, organizations, and scholars within and outside the Smithsonian. Some of the exhibitions have a digital component; examples include:
Additionally, SIL is the home of Library and Archival Exhibitions on the Web. This database, which is international in scope, also includes all SIL exhibitions.
SIL offers research opportunities for historians, librarians, pre-doctoral and post-doctoral scholars wishing to conduct research in the history of science and technology or in areas pertaining to other special collections:
Also offered are internships opportunities for students and others.
The Smithsonian Libraries Fact Sheet states that the "Smithsonian Libraries, though a plural noun, is consistently followed by a singular verb because it is considered a system of libraries, with individual locations operating under the aegis of a central administration and adhering to a common mission."
Print of an engraving of the library in the west end of the Smithsonian Institution Building, 1857
Library Stacks, balcony of the main hall, Smithsonian Institution Building, prior to 1914
Library stacks in the main hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building, prior to 1914
Library, lower main hall, Smithsonian Institution Building, 1914
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