Botany and Horticulture Library

The Botany library began as a departmentally run library in the 19th century at the Smithsonian Institution.  Literature is very important to the discipline of botany and in particular, taxonomy and botanical nomenclature. Throughout the library’s history, its location has been near the plant specimen collection.  Originally, the library books were housed in a departmental library or near the plant specimens in the herbarium.  The herbarium dates back to the beginning of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Collections of plants resulting from various early government expeditions were first deposited in the National Institute, named originally in 1840, as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science. Later these plants were turned over to the newly founded Smithsonian.  Botanical work expanded significantly in the 1880s and 1890s when staff and herbarium collections were moved from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to the Smithsonian. Housed in the Smithsonian Castle through the first half of the 1900s, the Botany Department’s library was developed and managed by curators and scientific staff for many years.

The Botany Library, as we know it today with a librarian managing the collection, was established in early 1966 when the Botany Department moved into the newly-built West Wing of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) building.  The library provides research support for the Department of Botany, NMNH and the large number of botanists world-wide, who use the collections and resources.

The Horticulture Library was established in 1984, to provide research support for the Horticulture Services Division, now Smithsonian Gardens.  Smithsonian Gardens is responsible for the management of the gardens, grounds, greenhouses, and interior plantscaping at the Smithsonian Institution. The Library evolved from a small office collection that was begun in the early 1970s. Since that time, this collection has been enhanced by the donation of several large gifts.   Also, in 1984, more than 150 American titles on landscape design dating from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries were purchased by the Director of Horticulture at the time.  This collection has become the foundation of a present day approximately 10,000 volume collection in horticulture, American garden and landscape gardening and design. 

In 2003,  the horticulture collection was brought over to the Botany Library and from 2011 to 2013, the two collections were merged into the physical space at NMNH.

Currently, one librarian is assigned to manage, provide collection development, and answer reference inquiries about the subject areas contained in this library's collection.

Botany Collections

The botany collection includes over 90,000 volumes, both books and journals, supporting the major interests of the Department of Botany.  Publication date of literature is 1840 to the present.  Pre-1840 botanical literature is held in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, which is also located at the National Museum of Natural History.   Literature is specifically on taxonomy and systematics and reflects the specimen collection of the U.S. National Herbarium and Botanist Curators' research areas.  Botany coverage, originally, literature of and on the neotropical regions of the world, is now global in scope.

Several large historically significant donations are incorporated into the collection: the John Donnell Smith Collection of general botany; the Hitchcock- Chase collection, primarily on grasses; the E. Yale Dawson collection on algae and marine botany and the lichen portion of the John S. Stevenson collection on mycology. All are fully cataloged. 

Horticulture Collections

The Horticulture Library houses more than 10,000 books and journals on literature focused on plants grown outdoors and within the interiors of the Smithsonian Institution, American garden history and landscape design.

The collection has been enhanced over time by several large gifts, including, in 1984, the acquisition of more than 150 American titles on landscape design dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries selected by Elisabeth Woodburn, a nationally known rare book dealer in New Jersey and one of the founders of the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries (CBHL). This purchase has provided an invaluable foundation for the horticulture collection.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives also has a trade catalog collection that includes about 10,000 seed and nursery catalogs dating from 1830 to the present. Many of the trade catalogs were part of the Burpee Collection donated to the Horticulture Services Division by Mrs. David Burpee in 1982. The collection includes both Burpee and their competitors' catalogs. These nursery and seed catalogs are now held at our Smithsonian Libraries Research Annex in suburban Maryland about 15 miles from the National Mall location.