Skip to main content

The Archives and Its Collections

The Smithsonian Institution Archives captures, preserves, and shares with the public the history of the Smithsonian Institution. From the Archives’ inception in 1846 to the present, the records of the history of the Smithsonian — its people, its programs, its research, and its stories — have been gathered, organized, and disseminated so that everyone can learn about this extraordinary Institution and its role in American history, scientific exploration, and with the promotion of international cultural understanding.

Today the Archives holds some 5,096 collections of Institutional records, personal papers and organizational papers comprising 35,161 cubic feet of archival documentation, as well as extensive digital resources.

In the earliest organizing documents of the Smithsonian, the importance of maintaining archival records was explicitly mentioned. Throughout the years the record-keeping practices of the Archives have evolved into a highly professional program that serves the staff of the Smithsonian as well as an international audience of researchers. The evolution of the Archives is a fascinating story that reflects the growth and development of the Smithsonian as a whole.

In 1993, reorganization resulted in the creation of the Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives with an Archives Division and an Institutional History Division, as well as the National Collections Program. In the 1990s, the Archives entered the era of electronic information, establishing an electronic records program and creating an Archives website. In 1996, to commemorate the Smithsonian’s sesquicentennial, the Archives published its fourth (and last) printed Guide to the Smithsonian Archives which described over 1,100 record units comprising some 15,500 cubic feet of archival material. This content was transitioned to the Smithsonian Institution Research and Information Resources website, where it is now possible to search online and link directly to the Archives’ finding aids. In 1997, the Archives began a program to store the records of many archives around the Smithsonian at Iron Mountain (formerly National Underground Storage) in Boyers, Pennsylvania.

In 1998, the name of the organization reverted back to its initial form, Smithsonian Institution Archives. At this time, a staffing structure was adopted with teams for records management, cataloging, and reference located in the Archives Division, while a Technical Services Division was created to ensure the long-term preservation of the materials that the Smithsonian Institution Archives holds in public trust with teams focused on preservation, electronic records, and data processing support. In 2003, the Smithsonian Center for Archives Conservation, initially funded by an endowment, was created to make conservation services available to all Smithsonian repositories. A formal Electronic Records Program was established in 2004, dedicated to the management and preservation of the Institution’s digital history. In 2009, the Digital Services Division was formed at that time to bring together the electronic records program, the digitization services, and the web and new media teams to preserve and make accessible the Archives’ born digital and digitized archival materials.