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How to take your writing research to the next level

From the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian Institution, national research resources abound for the curious writer. Here’s how to use them.

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Smithsonian Institution

Another regular source for Reilly is the Smithsonian Institution, which is much more than the collection museums on the Washington, D.C., National Mall. The Smithsonian bills itself as “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex” and comprises 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo, 21 libraries, and nine research facilities.

The Smithsonian’s collection includes more than 155 million items, falling into subjects from aviation to zoology. Its library system reaches across Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Virginia; New York; and Panama and hosts more than 2 million books, manuscripts, pieces of ephemera, microfilm, photo collections, and audio/visual material.

Many of these can be accessed and used for free. If searching digitized books online through the Smithsonian Libraries’ webpage, there’s a copyright field that either states “No Copyright United States” or, in fewer instances, “In Copyright.” Items in the latter category have been digitized with permission from a copyright holder, so there may be costs for usage. Fees are also charged for on-demand or new high-resolution scans.

“We are actively digitizing the public domain materials so people around the world can use them,” says Erin Rushing, outreach librarian for the Smithsonian Libraries. “We want people to understand we are their Smithsonian, and we want them to read, download, and reuse the materials.”


On the library homepage, you can find a list of all the branches to call or email. There’s also an Ask a Librarian email for reference questions. In-person visits to the libraries are by appointment only. “We require appointments to guide visitors into our library spaces, which are located beyond exhibition halls in secure areas,” says Rushing. “You must have a Smithsonian affiliation to check a book out directly. However, anyone can borrow our non-rare books via interlibrary loan through their local public library.”

The Smithsonian also leads the Biodiversity Heritage Library – a global consortium for online resources related to anything ever living, including animals, plants, fossils, and more. It has 250,000 volumes of natural history available. “If you’re ever researching a specific species of an animal and want the actual literature about it or amazing pictures, like an old 1800s plate, it’s an excellent source for that,” says Rushing. “You can type in the species name and instantly receive a huge list of where it is found, along with a tremendous amount of information.” All of the Smithsonian Libraries’ digitized natural history collections are located there. Everything else – like history, art, and culture titles – is hosted on the Smithsonian Libraries’ own website.

Although librarian and author Marcie Flinchum Atkins lives in the Washington, D.C., area, she has conducted only online research through the Smithsonian Libraries. However, she has conducted both online and in-person research at the Library of Congress and National Archives. She relied on a number of national institutions for her most recent book, Wait, Rest, Pause: Dormancy in Nature, a nonfiction picture book that explores the science of dormancy for animals and plants.


Atkins says she’s always heard from someone when she’s reached out to any of the organizations. “It may take a few days or so, but they always respond,” she says. “They might say ‘We don’t have anything,’ but more often they’ll share where you should look.”