History of the Interior Library


Soon after the Department of the Interior was established in 1849, Thomas Ewing, a former Senator from Ohio and father-in-law of General William T. Sherman, was selected to be the first Secretary of the Interior. After accepting his new position, Ewing chose his son, Thomas Ewing, Jr. to take charge of government publications received by the Department, in addition to his existing services as private secretary to President Zachary Taylor.

Ewing, Jr. was given a small hall room at the head of a flight of stairs in what was then known as the Corcoran Building, located at the corner of 15th and F Streets, opposite the Treasury Building. It was here in 1850 that the Library of the Department of the Interior was brought into existence. The necessary reference books for the rapidly growing Department were placed under his supervision and soon the Library became an important adjunct to the Secretary’s Office.

In 1859, the Department of the Interior was charged by Congress with the task of distributing all government publications. An act was also passed transferring from the State Department to the Interior Department the responsibility for copyrighting books, maps, charts, etc. All of this new business was placed in the hands of the section of the Secretary’s Office containing the Library. Throughout the 1860’s the Interior Library was busy not only with the inherent duties of a library, but also with the additional duties of publication distribution and copyrights for the entire Federal government.

Patent Building

Finally, in 1871, the responsibility for copyright business was transferred from the overburdened Interior Library to the Library of Congress. Eight years later, the Library was removed from the Documents Division of the Interior Department, freeing the Library from its responsibility to distribute government documents. It was also in 1879 that the Library was given a new home on the second floor of the Patent Office Building (now the National Portrait Gallery). The number of volumes housed in the new Library was increased to twelve thousand and the Interior Department decided to hire the Library’s first professional librarian, Annie B. Irish.

Despite the fact that there was an established Departmental Library, bureaus and agencies of the Department felt their own need to create library collections that catered to their own missions. Soon a number of Interior-affiliated libraries appeared on the scene that housed collections for offices such as the Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Indian Affairs, General Land Office, and others. During the 1880’s there was a movement to consolidate these libraries into the main Interior Library. However, these bureaus refused to give up their own collections.

By the 1890s, the tide had turned and a new movement had started, seeking the closure of the Interior Library in favor of retaining the bureau libraries. Finally, in 1907 this movement succeeded. Interior’s circulating Library was abolished and its collection was distributed to the Library of Congress and the Washington D.C. Public Library system.


By the early 1930s, the Department of the Interior was outgrowing its existing office space in what is now the General Services Administration Building. A new Interior Building was proposed to be built across E Street from the old Interior Building. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes saw the new building as an opportunity to finally reestablish a Department of the Interior Library, something that he had always sought the chance to do. Ickes made sure that plans for the new building, completed in 1937, included dedicated space for a new Interior Library.


In April 1937 Ickes issued Secretarial Order No. 1173 which stated, “The consolidated library located at the southwest corner, first floor, Interior building, is now ready for occupancy and all books now housed in rooms should be turned over to the library, except reference books actually needed in connection with current work.” The books that were to be donated were supposed to become the base collection of the new consolidated Departmental Library.

However, most of the bureaus and offices within the Department were reluctant to give up their own collections. Most of the books collected came from the Office of Education, which at the time was an office under the Department of the Interior. In fact, the collection was so education intensive, that the library itself became known to most Interior staff and library patrons as the Library of the Office of Education, not exactly what Ickes had envisioned.

The Office of Education was part of the Department of the Interior until 1939, when it became part of the Federal Security Agency. It would later join the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare before becoming its own cabinet agency, the Department of Education, in 1979. Although it was no longer part of the Interior Department, the Office of Education maintained the library in the Interior Building until December 1948.


Finally, in December 1948, the Library of the Office of Education was moved out of the Interior Building. Interior officials again saw the need to create a consolidated library that truly housed a collection that covered all subject matters administered by the Department of the Interior. On June 24, 1949 Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug signed Secretarial Order No. 2525 which states,

"A Department of the Interior Library is established in order to promote the objectives of the Department through a wider dissemination of knowledge in the field of natural resources and in the other fields of activity of the Department … The Department of the Interior library shall be composed of a consolidation of the following existing libraries located in Washington:

Law Library of the Office of the Solicitor

Library of the Bureau of Mines

Library of the Fish and Wildlife Service

Library of the Bureau of Reclamation

Library of the Bureau of Land Management

Collections of Books in the National Park Service

Library of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Library of the Division of Territories and Island Possessions

The libraries of the Geological Survey and Division of Geography were allowed to maintain their own library collections, under the administrative control of the Geological Survey. The U.S. Geological Survey continues to maintain its own library collection to this day. This time, the new Secretarial Order had the desired effect.

The newly reestablished Department of the Interior Library was able to collect over 450 thousand volumes in 1949 from all of the bureaus and agencies listed above, and established itself as the Interior Department's primary resource for information in subject matters related to the Department.

Today, the Interior Library maintains a collection of almost one million volumes and includes CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs, videotapes, audiotapes, microfilm and microfiche. In addition, the Library provides the Department with access to a number of online reference and research databases. The Library's website provides users with access to the Library's online catalog of holdings, information on upcoming educational programs hosted by the Library, as well as links to informational websites on topics of interest to Departmental researchers.


Updated October 2021

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