Instrument Trade Literature at the Smithsonian
Trade Literature collection in the National Museum of American History
Branch Library is one of the largest of its kind in the world. It
continues to grow, thanks to the donation of several large gift
collections and the purchase of a large portion of the Franklin
Institute collection, so that it now comprises over 300,000 pieces.
The bulk of the collection dates between 1880 and 1950, and represents
primarily American companies, with the notable exceptions being
scientific instruments and machine tools, where foreign companies
are well represented.
Steven Turner says in his introductory essay,
the value of trade literature for artifact research cannot be overemphasized.
Jon Eklund, a former curator of the chemical collections at the
National Museum of American History called it the "backbone"
of documentation for objects in the museum. This is especially true
of scientific instrument catalogs. Many of these catalogs are painstakingly
detailed in their description and illustration of the instruments.
Though these catalogs are offering goods for sale and are thus primarily
interested in putting their wares in the most favorable light, the
technical data provided is often the only contemporary source of
information on particular instruments. Thus an instrument catalog
can offer a "snapshot" of the design, construction, and
application of an instrument in its original context. Another strongpoint
of these catalogs is their contribution to verifying an instrument's
authenticity. When consulting the catalog, one is not looking at
second-hand information on the instrument but usually the actual
specifications of the makers themselves. Although, as R.G.W. Anderson,
et al., say in Handlist of scientific instrument-maker trade
catalogues, 1600-1914 (Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland,
1990): "Perhaps the greatest value of trade catalogues is that
they suggest ideas which can be verified through examination of
other sources, and corroborate evidence gleaned from other types
instrument catalogs can sometimes be considered artifacts themselves
because of the care and high production values that went into publishing
them, especially the eighteenth to early nineteenth century specimens.
However, as they began publishing more copies, publishers attempted
to keep down the costs by using cheaper, low-quality paper. Unfortunately
this has led over time to the serious deterioration of many of the
catalogs, especially some of the Max Kohl company catalogs. Thus
the restricted access and the inevitable disintegration of some
of the catalogs provided the impetus for Smithsonian Libraries to
scan these remarkable representations of technical skill, precision
presentation of scientific instrument catalogs is part of a larger
effort by the Smithsonian Libraries to publicize and disseminate
this vast collection of trade literature. As an under-utilized segment
of material culture, it has the potential to create new avenues
for the exploration of the history of science and technology by
scholars and enthusiasts alike who would otherwise never have the
opportunity to use the collection on site. Full cataloging of the
collection is well underway, and a complete inventory will begin
in the near future to be made accessible on the web. The catalogs
are arranged by company name. Researchers can obtain access to part
of the holdings by searching the on-line catalog (www.siris.si.edu).
Access to the bulk of the trade literature collection is by library
staff reviewing the shelves by company name. The collection is in
a closed stack area and is available to researchers on-site only
by appointment. The catalogs do not circulate or go out on interlibrary
loan. For more information on trade catalogs please go to the Libraries'
home page for trade
Reference Librarian, National Museum of American History Library