History of the Dibner Library

Ramelli's book wheelIn 1976, the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology was established with a gift from the Burndy Library of Norwalk, Connecticut (created by Bern Dibner). The gift provided the Smithsonian Institution Libraries with its first rare book library, located in the National Museum of American History, Behring Center. Contained in this collection are many of the major works dating from the fifteenth to the early nineteenth centuries in the history of science and technology including engineering, transportation, chemistry, mathematics, physics, electricity, and astronomy.

The Dibner Library traces its roots back to Bern Dibner (1897-1988), an electrical engineer, book collector, and philanthropist. Born in the country now known as Ukraine, Dibner immigrated to the United States in 1904 and settled with his family in New York City. He graduated from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1921 and embarked on a career in electrical engineering which led to his patenting a number of inventions and his founding of the Burndy Engineering Company in 1924.

Dibner, who was fascinated by both art and technology, found great pleasure in studying Leonardo da Vinci. This interest led him to obtain a small library (eventually called the Burndy Library) of works about da Vinci which grew over the years as Dibner's interests expanded into the history of electricity, the history of Renaissance technology, and finally the history of science & technology in general. His collection continued to grow, and in 1941 he formally set up the Burndy Library as a separate institution "to advance scholarship in the history of science." By 1964, Dibner's collection totaled over forty thousand volumes and he opened a new building in Norwalk, Connecticut, to house the library more appropriately.

In 1974 Bern Dibner donated one-quarter of the Burndy Library's holdings to the Smithsonian Institution to form the nucleus of a research library in the history of science and technology to be located in the young (established 1964) National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History, Behring Center). The library opened its doors in 1976 as the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries now has administrative responsibility for the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology.

The Libraries has cataloged the books and manuscripts of the Burndy Library donation and entered the records into the international database OCLC and the Smithsonian's own online catalog, SIRIS.

Postscript: The original Burndy Library remained in Norwalk until Bern Dibner's death in 1988, after which the contents were moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it became the research library for the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Burndy Library has since closed to the public, and in the fall of 2006 the collection became part of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.