Binding Two National Libraries: Rare Books from the Smithsonian
In 1866, the Smithsonian physically transferred its library of over 40,000 works to the Library of Congress. A notable event in the history of both information institutions, the Smithsonian Deposit included a range of materials which today are dispersed throughout the Library’s divisions. Among them are some unexpected and intriguing materials in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The following post is by Allison Buser, Reference and Collections Assistant in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

When the newly constructed Rare Book Reading Room opened on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building in 1933, its immediate neighbor to the north was a custodial division that no longer exists at the Library: the Smithsonian Division. Created in 1866, this former neighbor played an important role in the collection development of the Library of Congress, which had not always been considered the national library. The Rare Book and Special Collections Division can trace several important collections to the Smithsonian Deposit and its intricate and fascinating history.

The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, U.S., [1859] Stereograph. London Stereoscopic Company.

In 1866, the Smithsonian Institution transferred its library collection of over 40,000 works to the Library of Congress, following two disastrous fires at the Smithsonian’s building. Arguing that the collection would be better housed in the fire-proof rooms in the Capitol Building (where the Library of Congress was still housed), the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry (1797– 1878), simultaneously sought to divest the Institution of its maintenance costs for such a large collection. By agreement between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian (and official sanction by an act of Congress), the Institution’s impressive library would subsequently be housed, cataloged, and cared for by the Library of Congress while the Smithsonian maintained legal ownership of the collection.

The floor plan of the Jefferson Building.
Black-and-white image of book stacks with guard rails.

Prior to the Smithsonian transfer, the Library of Congress had held approximately 99,000 volumes and had previously tied for sixth place in size in an 1859 national survey of library collections.[1] While the Smithsonian’s collection may not have rivaled that of the Library of Congress in size, it certainly did in prestige—especially its holdings of scientific scholarship. In fact, some people regarded the nascent, yet distinguished, Smithsonian library as the future national library in the capital city, rather than the Library of Congress. Though significant collections were held by other notable American institutions, uniting these two libraries was an action which drew the Library of Congress to the forefront as “America’s national library” in the minds of the American people. In his 1869 report, the Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Spofford (1825-1908), confirmed this objective, finding that the Smithsonian Deposit contributed to the “broader object of forming one truly great and comprehensive library, worthy of Congress and of the nation.” Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry more grandiosely declared:

The collection of books owned by Congress would not be worthy of the name of a National Library were it not for the Smithsonian deposit. The books which it receives from this source are eminently those which exhibit the progress of the world in civilization, and are emphatically those essential to the contemporaneous advance of our country in the higher science of the day.[2]

Black-and-white portrait of Joseph Henry in a white color and long black coat seated in a chair.
Prof. Joseph Henry. [ca. 1860-1865]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

For several decades, the Smithsonian deposit was largely held as a separate collection at the Library, although some materials were dispersed to more appropriate custodial divisions. Because the Institution received publications from an extensive cooperative network of notable scholarly institutions in the United States and abroad, new works were added to the deposit each year. By 1898, one year after the Jefferson Building was completed, the deposit was estimated to contain about 175,000 independent titles.[3]

Image of Thomas Jefferson Building during construction without roof.
[Builders at work above the second level of the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building during its construction]. December 3, 1891. Cyanotype. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library ensured that Smithsonian employees and researchers had continuous access to the collection by establishing a dedicated division for its maintenance and setting aside space for the deposit on the second floor of the new main building. In 1941, the Smithsonian Division collection was moved to the Library’s “Annex” (known today as the Adams Building) to be maintained and served under the auspices of the newly established Science and Technology reading room.[4] By 1953, caring for the almost 600,000 volume collection as a separate entity had become too costly. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian had since rebuilt its own onsite library collections. By agreement between the two institutions, the Smithsonian relinquished control of the deposit collection, which was absorbed into the larger Library collections.[5]

Black-and-white image of the front of an art deco style building.
[Library of Congress. Front of Annex under construction, Washington, D.C.]. [1935?]. Photographic print. Prints and Photographs Division.

While incoming items were added to the Library’s larger catalog, a distinct, comprehensive catalog of the Smithsonian Deposit was never maintained. The collection mostly consisted of works of scholarly investigation and methodological discovery to support the first Smithsonian Secretary’s goals of becoming a world-class scientific institution. However, the initial deposit included diverse materials on multitude of topics. Valuable and intriguing pieces that document the history and breadth of this significant collection are still evident throughout the Library’s various holdings, including within the collections of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Notable acquisitions from the deposit include the copyright deposit ledgers, the Luther Collection, and contributions to the Incunabula and Early Printing Collections. 


The Smithsonian Copyright Deposit Ledgers

The history of copyright in the United States is tied to the history of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Deposit. As an early strategy for collection building, both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress secured the right to each collect deposited materials registered for copyright with the State Department. Passed as part of the act which created the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846, the copyright deposit clause (“Section 10”) lacked any enforcement provision, and was often disregarded by many publishers and authors—the Library of Congress only received 4,200 copyright works before the law was abrogated in 1859.[1]

However, from publishers and authors that did comply with the copyright act, both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress received an array of books, maps, charts, music, prints, cuts, engravings, and other materials documenting the motley productions of mid-nineteenth-century Americans and revealing the interests and attitudes of the era. Several Smithsonian Library ledgers recording receiving copyright deposits, (as well as many of the items listed in the ledgers) were later transferred to the Library and are now held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division alongside the Library’s own Early Copyright Records Collection.

Image of a ledger with lots of entries written in ink.
Image of a ledger with lots of entries written in ink.

The Martin Luther Collection

In 1866, the Smithsonian acquired from the Royal Library of Dresden “a series of 232 original discourses or theses and tracts, most of which were written by Luther, and the remainder by his contemporaries…”  Rev. Dr. Morris, librarian of the Peabody Institute at the time, provided a translation of the collection’s catalog and noted its significance:

What renders this collection interesting to the bibliographer is, that they are all first impressions, and not reprints. The proofs were doubtless revised and corrected by [Luther’s] own hand, as most of them were printed at places where he resided. They present specimens of paper and printing which are very creditable to the artisans of that day…[6]

In accordance with the newly minted Smithsonian Deposit agreement, these materials were subsequently sent to the Library of Congress, where most were re-bound, and the collection was added to the larger catalog. These works—along with a few additional volumes from other sources and the collection’s original Smithsonian manuscript catalog—today comprise the Martin Luther Collection in Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


Incunabula and Early Printing

Dispersed throughout the Division’s Incunabula and Early Printing collections are more than 50 volumes received with the original Smithsonian Deposit, largely consisting of religious texts, as well as some legal volumes. Like the Luther Collection, the Smithsonian presumably acquired these materials through their global network of scholarly institutions with whom they exchanged research works. One report notes that the German University of Tübingen had presented the Institution with 28 “rare and curious” incunabula, which were later deposited in the Library of Congress.[7]


Image of black text on a white background with large red initials.
Smithsonian Institution stamp in Etymologiae. Isidore, of Seville. [Augsburg, 1472]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Identifying the Smithsonian Deposit

While the provenance of many volumes from the Smithsonian Deposit has been recorded in the Library’s digital catalog records, the connection some items have to this collection is only identifiable through physical indicators on the items themselves. One such indicator is the Smithsonian Institution’s ink stamp.

Two oval ink stamps on paper that read: smithsonian institution.
Library stamp marking Smithsonian Deposit items now in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress.

Other documentation of Smithsonian provenance was added to items during the Library of Congress’s acquisition process. This includes a unique gold stamp on Library bindings and variations of Library of Congress bookplates designating the item’s association with the Smithsonian Deposit collection.


Smithsonian Deposit works are woven throughout the Library’s collections—across many divisions— and, while especially present in scientific collection areas, the dispersed volumes include many unexpected and intriguing works. Although no longer part of a single, distinct collection, the works of the Smithsonian Deposit, as well as other Rare Books and Special Collections Division holdings such as the Peter Force and Joseph Meredith Toner libraries were key nineteenth-century acquisitions that expanded the Library of Congress and fixed its status as the de facto national library in the minds of the American people.




[1] John Y. Cole. Of Copyright, Men & a National Library. 

[2] Annual report of the Librarian of Congress, 1869. p. 1. 

[3] Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1898. p. 73.

[4] Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1941. p. 44. 

[5] Smithsonian Libraries. General History.

[6] Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1866. p. 29-30.

[7] Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, 1898. p. 71.



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