By Jennifer Albers-Smith
I’ve been to the Smithsonian a couple times before, and I’ve always thought of it as just a museum (and a glorious one at that) – giant covered wagon, old-fashioned cars, sewing machines, etc. I had absolutely no idea what lay behind the exhibits until my recent trip to do some filming for our latest Behind the Screen video at the National Museum of American History.
We lugged our film equipment through the side entrance and took a long walk through a dimly-lit maze to get to a wooden door – the entrance to the Dibner Library. I had never noticed the sign for the Dibner Library before. It’s right off the main entrance to the museum, and open to the public, but it’s tucked away, and most visitors have no idea it exists… What’s inside is an absolute treasure trove.
Lilla Verkedy, Head of Special Collections at Smithsonian Libraries, has an awesome job. She gets to work with some truly amazing pieces of American history. Within the Dibner Library, there are books dating back to the 1400s, bound in leather and vellum–teeny tiny books and giant atlases–and Lilla lets you touch them. In fact, she says that when people wear gloves, they lose some of their tactile sensibility and can inadvertently damage the precious books because by being unaware of how much pressure they are putting on the paper.
Lilla had some specific pieces she wanted us to film as part of our project, but first we had to find them. I hadn’t warned her ahead of time, so we had to dig through the collection to find what she had in mind. And we had to look page by page, volume by volume. We saw exhibit plans, photographs, gorgeous color illustrations of the World’s Fair buildings, and detailed information about Woman’s Building at the Columbia Exposition. I was riveted and enjoyed every minute of it. The content Gale is digitizing is absolutely fascinating. And, trust me, once you start doing some searching in this product, you’ll be hooked. I certainly was.
Sitting down and interviewing Lilla and Nancy Gwinn, Director of Smithsonian Libraries, was a wonderful experience. These women couldn’t be more passionate about the amazing resources that they have in the libraries at the Smithsonian. More people should know about and be using these resources. I know that they, and us here at Gale, are thrilled to get this content in the hands of libraries and thus into the hands of students and faculty.
Hear their story:
I can tell you next time I go to the Smithsonian, I’ll be making an appointment to stop by the Dibner Library to peruse more of the books.
And you know, those pieces that Lilla and I browsed page-by-page, I found instantly with one search on “Ferris Wheel” once I came back to the office and pulled up Smithsonian Collections Online. Just think what students and faculty will be able to do with these materials now that they are fully digitized and full-text searchable.