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: the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology and the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History. Access is provided to Smithsonian Institution curators, researchers, and other staff as well as outside scholars by appointment.
The Special Collections Department also provides assistance and expertise to the other Smithsonian libraries that have rare book and special collections holdings as part of their larger collections.
The Special Collections of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries are among its most intriguing and unusual assets. They comprise books, journals, and pamphlets as well as manuscripts, maps, prints, medals and other objects. Because of their rarity, cost, beauty, unusual content, form, or physical condition, these works demand the best possible storage environment and highest security. The Special Collections Department libraries contain 40,000 rare and valuable volumes and 2,000 manuscript groups, the majority dating from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries. Other components consist of the world's fairs and international expositions collection which consists of publications documenting the fairs from 1851 to 1920 and the surviving volumes of James Smithson's personal library. These collections are housed in two Smithsonian libraries:
- The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology in the National Museum of American History
- The Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History in the National Museum of Natural History
The other rare book and special collections in the Smithsonian Libraries represent such diverse research interests as early aeronautics, European decorative arts and design, and Asian art. For more information about these other special collections, see the individual library pages.