History of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

By Lilla Vekerdy

The Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology is the Smithsonian’s historical collection of rare books and manuscripts containing notable works of scientific and technological literature. This world-class collection comprises 35,000 rare books and close to 2,000 manuscript groups, and contains many of the most significant works dating from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries in the history of science and technology. The Dibner Library shares this collection with the public through research services, resident scholar programs, exhibitions, loans to other institutions’ exhibits, and public programs.

The collection of the Dibner Library is incredibly rich in its field. The subject strengths are history of the physical sciences, particularly mathematics, astronomy, classical Renaissance natural philosophy, theoretical and experimental physics (especially electricity and magnetism), chemistry, engineering technology, transportation, as well as scientific apparatus and instrumentation. The holdings include numerous works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Sacrobosco, Regiomontanus, Apian, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Laplace, Euler, Gauss, Orstead and many others. The core of the collection is the approximately 11,000 rare books and manuscripts that were generously donated by the Burndy Library (Bern Dibner, 1897-1988, founder) to the Smithsonian Institution on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial.

In a 1979 interview[1], Bern Dibner—electrical engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, and science historian—talked about how his interest in collecting these history of science books had started. The origin was economist Stuart Chase’s book, Men and Machines, which contains a chapter on Leonardo da Vinci[2]. Reading it in the 1920s, Dibner was fascinated by Leonardo’s “dichotomy of interest in the arts and the sciences” which embraced art as well as anatomy, mechanics, and engineering, and this similarly satisfied Dibner’s own “dual interests.” In 1936 Dibner allowed a sabbatical year for himself in Europe away from the operations of his business, the by then well-functioning Burndy Co. He matriculated at the University of Zurich, traveled in France, Germany and Italy and bought his first books for reference in the late-1930s. This was the slow beginning of the development of the Burndy Library. Originally books on Leonardo, then the interest spread onto other Renaissance figures and their achievements and the technological and intellectual growth of the age. Furthermore, works were acquired by the scientists of the Scientific Revolution and then the collecting field opened up to the science history of the enlightenment. From there it further developed to a major part of the nineteenth century and selected works from the twentieth.  Dibner especially valued these books because in them the new horizons in intellectual development were greatly expanded by the new technologies and inventions.

Soon 40,000 volumes accumulated and the Burndy collection became known because of its research significance and also because the library published a monograph in science history every year. They built a state of the art library building in 1964 in Norwalk, Connecticut where the headquarters of the Burndy Co. had previously moved. Already in the 1930s and during the Second World War Dibner created connections with rare book dealers in Great Britain and in Italy and he developed his collection later as well based on these connections. He acquired entire libraries of famous scientists such as Alessandro Volta and Louis Pasteur, continued to collect the most significant landmarks in the history of science, and published an annotated bibliography, titled Heralds of science[3], about the two hundred most important books in his collection. These selected Heralds are all in the Smithsonian’s Dibner Library now and they comprise one of the first main groups for our digitization projects.

Being an electrical engineer Dibner collected, with great interest, early works about electricity.  The debate between Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta about “animal electricity” in the late 18th century is represented in the collection, as well as Benjamin Franklin’s famous treatise, Experiments and observations on electricity: made at Philadelphia in America (London: Printed and sold by E. Cave ..., 1751). This work, as many others in the Dibner Library, is present in its first edition and several subsequent editions as well, which allows that the researcher can follow the evolution of certain ideas published at different times. There are close to eleven hundred titles in the Dibner collection that discuss topics related to electricity and almost five hundred which specializes in electrical engineering. These mostly came from Bern Dibner’s original collection, the Burndy Library.

Other significant parts of the Burndy Library that were acquired by the Dibner collection in 1976 are the 320 incunabula (i.e. early printed books manufactured with movable type between ca. 1450 and 1501), the 1600 manuscript groups/volumes, and the numerous titles with first description of scientific observations and discoveries, often profusely illustrated. When asked in the same 1979 interview about the three greatest books in the history of science, Dibner listed Newton’s Principia (1687), the application of mathematics to the three laws of motion “that is the key how the universe operates;” Copernicus’s book on the revolution of heavenly spheres (1543) announcing the heliocentric world-view; and as the most beautiful book Vesalius’s illustrated anatomy, the Fabrica (1543); all three are Heralds and presently in the Dibner Library. Repository for so many historical treasures, the Dibner Library is not only a prime research institution but also has a significant role in the fundraising efforts of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

In addition to the main collection of the Dibner Library there are other special and rare book collections in its stacks area: the World’s Fairs Special Collection, the Comegy Family Rare Book Collection, and the Alexander Graham Bell – Joseph Henry Collection. These are first-rate resources for mostly nineteenth-century research on a broader scope than the history of science and technology. All Dibner Library holdings are accessible from the SIL online catalog, SIRIS, the Smithsonian Institution Research Information System.

The excellent collection of the Dibner Library serves the historical research needs of Smithsonian curators, researchers and fellows, as well as scholars and the interested public nationally and internationally. As a non-lending library, we provide research possibilities on site by appointment and also reach an increasingly growing audience through reference and outreach work on telephone, via email and social media. Recent inquiries included information about historical book bindings, travel journals about pygmy peoples, early history of photographical processes, late eighteenth century maps, Civil War photographs, an original letter by Galileo, early nineteenth-century American indentures, the manuscripts of Baldassarre Boncompagni (1821-1894), and much more. Dibner Library resources provide information for exhibition development in many museums of the Smithsonian and the library has loaned items to other institutions, such as the National Library of Medicine and the Rubin Museum of Art (New York, NY). Collaborative efforts are frequent in the Dibner, especially with National Museum of American History. Dibner fellows are regularly lecturing at the Tuesday Colloquium Series, and museum curators and the Dibner Curator often consult about new acquisitions.

Since the Smithsonian Institution Libraries has three Resident Scholar Programs established for the use of its Special Collections, the Dibner Library has continuous flow of scholars who are awarded fellowships and conduct research in the Libraries’ collections year-round. The Dibner Library Scholar program offers 1-6 months fellowships for the particular use of the Dibner collections. The research work our resident scholars produce manifests in finished doctoral dissertations, scholarly articles and monographs in various fields of the sciences and humanities. This interdisciplinary feature is one of the main advantages of using the diverse special collections of the Smithsonian Libraries, but even within the holdings of the Dibner Library itself, there is a great potential for interdisciplinary research. All Resident Scholar Programs are administered from the Dibner Library: the selection process and the additional logistics are taken care by Dibner staff.

The Dibner Library participates in educational programs by giving tours and hosting classes for graduate, undergraduate, and even high school groups, conducting special research projects for elementary school students, and giving presentations for continuing education programs to professionals. These audiences all very much appreciate being able to see or peruse the original rare books or manuscripts and these several hundred year-old items make an effect on those as well who have no professional interest in them. The annual Dibner Library Lecture too is a regular program for public education and outreach.  Recent lectures included Joyce Chaplin (Harvard University) speaking on "Benjamin Franklin's Political Arithmetic: A Materialist View of Humanity" (2006), and this year, under the aegis of this Symposium, British author Richard Holmes talking about “Romantic Science.”

With this symposium, “The Era of Experiments and the Age of Wonder,” we celebrated our Resident Scholar Programs and also the re-opening of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Part of this celebration was to tell the history of the Library in this paper and naturally, we emphasized the significance of the collection all through it. To summarize this, we can again turn back to Bern Dibner’s own words. His interviewer asked him “Why is the Dibner Library special?”[4] Dibner replied: ”the special [function] that this library performs is to gather and to make available to scholars the primary evidence of the record of discovery […] Now, that is specialized.”[5]

In this description the word ‘primary’ is emphatically important. The “evidence,” the books in the Dibner Library are primary sources: works publishing scientific ideas directly by the authors, and not by the way of someone else’s secondary analyses. They are the most original resources to understand new findings, discoveries, theories, and observations. Going back to these roots make the history of science research authentic and authoritative.

In the general history of libraries—Bern Dibner noted—science libraries are relatively “new” because science, (and here he understood modern science), itself is new compared to philosophy or theology. He emphasized how short a time had passed since Darwin’s Origin of species was first read and none the less, what a great change happened in scientific thinking during this brief time period.[6] Dibner was an enthusiastic witness of a scientific age, that he characterized as “still in the learning phase of how to use scientific knowledge to its best advantage.” He did not believe in “scientific explanation” but in “changing human understanding,”[7] understanding how to look upon the material world. This is what he followed in his collecting and the monument of which is represented in the outstanding collection of the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

[1] Dibner, Bern, Interview [manuscript] by M. Krauss, 1979.

[2] Chase, Stuart, Men and machines (New York: MacMillan, 1929): 61-62.

[3] Dibner, Bern, Heralds of Science (Norwalk, Conn.: Burndy Library, Inc., 1955)

[4] Dibner, Interview, p.44.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 59.

[7] Ibid., p. 61.