Alumni profile: Nancy Gwinn

Photo Credit: Elizabeth O'Brien, Smithsonian Libraries

Nancy E. Gwinn, Director of the Smithsonian Libraries

The institution known as the Smithsonian Libraries is awe-inspiring. Consisting of a network of 21 specialized research libraries, it offers more than 2 million volumes, 50,000 rare books and manuscripts, and much more.

These libraries–located in Washington, DC, Maryland, New York and Panama–address a wide range of scientific and cultural topics at an equally wide array of museums.

Just a few examples are the Botany and Horticulture Library; American Art and Portrait Gallery Library; National Air and Space Museum; National Museum for African Art; National Museum of American Indian; and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Panama location.

Suffice it to say the Smithsonian Libraries -- which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year -- is a national treasure. Wouldn’t any UMSI alumnus love to run such an institution?

Well, actually, one does.

Nancy E. Gwinn (AMLS ‘69) has been director of the Smithsonian Libraries since 1997. The key role of her staff of 130 is helping the Smithsonian Institution’s research and curatorial staff document the almost innumerable, often unique, objects in the various museums, and their cultural and historical contexts.

It’s as big an enterprise as it sounds, she confirms – but it’s still a traditional, familiar library, in all regards.

“The Smithsonian Libraries is in a unique research institution,” says Gwinn, “but we operate much the same way as a university library. Along with traditional core services, we have a book conservation lab and a digital imaging center.”

Gwinn began her career at the Libraries in 1984, as assistant director for collections management. Not long after that came the technology era, which has required significant changes and challenges for all libraries.

As director, Gwinn has met these challenges head-on.

Digitization of library materials has been a major initiative. The Libraries’ first digitization project began in 2003. Today, the institution’s online catalog provides free access to about two million items, many of them available digitally.

As Gwinn often says of this effort, "These collections belong to the American people. It's our desire to share them as much as we can." (The visibility offered by the Internet doesn’t hurt, either, since the Libraries’ offices are located in the National Museum of Natural History, which, alas, does not have the name “Library” on it.)

A particularly notable product of the digitization era, which the Smithsonian Libraries and Gwinn took the lead in developing, is the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL).

As described on Libraries’ website, BHL is an international, online “consortium of major natural history, botanical, and research libraries that cooperate to digitize and make accessible the literature of biodiversity held in their collections as a part of a global ‘biodiversity commons.’"
The Libraries played the lead role in developing BHL, which means Gwinn did, also. “I oversaw the people who developed it,” she says somewhat modestly. She recently stepped down from five years of chairing the BHL Members Council, and BHL is still “a very active program,” she says.

It contains nearly 225,000 volumes with over 54 million pages of texts and illustrations. There are also over 124,000 illustrations collected in a Flickr site

In addition to all of this, Gwinn says, the Libraries also formulated Smithsonian Research Online (SRO) which contains citations and texts to all research products back to the first volume of Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, published in 1850 (

So, what path led Gwinn to this esteemed position?

It all began in 1967, when she earned a BA, with honors, in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. Gwinn grew up in Sheridan, Wyoming, a small town. (“There are no large towns in Wyoming,” she says.) After graduating, she won a Fulbright Scholarship that took her to Oxford University.

Before traveling to England, she consulted University of Wyoming’s Director of Libraries about the best library graduate schools. His answer: the University of Illinois, Columbia University (now closed) – and the University of Michigan. U-M offered Gwinn the best scholarship, so to Michigan she came in 1969.

She did not regret it. “After having gone to a state school with a large population, to come to a grad school with a much smaller population, where you got to know your professors, was a terrific change for me,” she says. “It made a big difference.”

She also recalls in 1969 being the master’s candidate representative on the search committee for the first dean when the “Department of Library Science” became the “School of Library Science” (now the U-M School of Information.) This was another amazing opportunity, she says.

“We went around interviewing people for the deanship, including going to what was my first ALA conference, which happened to be here, in Washington. It was quite an experience.” (That first dean was Russell Bidlack.)

Gwinn also recalls a professor named Wallace Bonk who, in the late 1960s, “gave us a list of these new computer terms he thought we should at least be familiar with – just so we wouldn’t be out to sea – ‘DOS,’ ‘FORTRAN’ -- they were early computer programming words.

“He didn’t know how right he was.”

Decades later -- after working at the Library of Congress and earning her PhD in American Civilization from George Washington University in 1996 -- Gwinn knows a lot more computer words. Most she has had to learn on the job -- the best job she could have wished for at U-M so long ago.

Thus, the good work continues.

Along with assisting Smithsonian Institution staff, there is always marketing and fundraising to do, meetings, speeches, and other things, such as the endowments Gwinn and her husband, John Y. Cole, established at UMSI for scholarships. Cole, formerly Director of the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, is now the Library’s Historian,

More than anything is the continual expansion of digital services, which are becoming predominant, but also to “find things people want and need” that will bring them to the library. “It’s a shift to a customer-oriented focus,” Gwinn says, “which was not always the case.

“It’s another way of proving our worth to the Smithsonian for its investment in the Libraries.”

Dr. Nancy E. Gwinn is a member of UMSI’s External Advisory Board.

Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist