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Special Collections at the Library

Preserving USDA and Agricultural History

The Library houses rare books, manuscript collections, nursery and seed trade catalogs, photographs, posters, and more related to the history of agriculture.

Search the Collections

As part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Library, Special Collections preserves and provides access to manuscripts and archival materials related to the history of agriculture and the USDA. These collections document the work of USDA from the 19th through the 21st centuries, as well as non-USDA agricultural activities and organizations related to agriculture. Materials found in these collections include correspondence, field notes, journals, photographs, publications, posters, and other items. Browse all collections or search below.

Black Agricultural Experience in the United States

Child in 4-H learning to fix a tractor

A curated collection of historical materials that document how Black people across the United States have contributed to and interacted with agriculture.

Rare Books

Strong in botany, natural history, zoology, and entomology, the collection includes writings of many great herbalists of the sixteenth century as well as works documenting agricultural observations, experiments, and practices. 

USDA History Collection

This collection documents the work of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its staff, and agencies.  It is particularly strong concerning the activities of the Secretaries of Agriculture, their assistants, and staffs.

Henry G. Gilbert Nursery and Seed Trade Catalog Collection

This collection consists of over 250,000 American and international catalogs. The earliest catalogs date from the late 1700s, but the collection is strongest from the 1890s to the present. Some have been digitized.

U.S. Forest Service Smokey Bear Collection

This collection includes an assortment of materials dating from 1902 to 1994 with the majority of the items relating to the various advertising activities which began in 1942.

USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection

Over 7,000 fruit and nut watercolors are digitized and available for high-resolution download, documenting varieties from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Additional Information

Plan Your Visit

The Special Collections reading room is open to the public for archival research by appointment or to view rare books or archival materials. Because these materials are unique, rare, or fragile, Special Collections does not lend items to researchers or other libraries.

Reading room appointments: Please email us at least 48 hours in advance of your preferred research date. If you are traveling from out of state, please email us to check schedule availability before booking your travel. 

Requesting research materials: Please email us the list of research materials you want to view at least 48 hours before you arrive. This gives us time to locate your materials, pull them, and have them ready for you.

Include this information in your request:

  • Collection title
  • Box number, folder number, and item description

Your research appointment

What to bring to your research appointment

  • Government-issued photo identification, such as a passport or driver’s license
  • Laptop or tablet computer
  • Digital camera or phone (with the flash turned off); camera tripods will be considered if its use does not harm the collection materials
  • Pencil and paper for taking notes
  • Personal scanners will be considered on a case-by-case basis

What not to bring to your research appointment

  • Food, drink, chewing gum, or mints
  • Pens, highlighters, or markers
  • Self-stick notes

When you arrive at the library

Please enter through the main door at the front of the building (where the flagpole is located). You must present your photo identification and sign in at the security desk. The security guard will inspect any backpacks, bags, or containers.

Tell the guard that you have an appointment with Special Collections, and a staff member will escort you to the reading room on the third floor.

The library provides free parking in the visitor parking lot.


You will register for your research visit once you reach the Special Collections reading room. There is no online pre-registration required.  

Collection care and handling

Special Collections houses archival materials that are rare, unique, and often fragile. To protect these materials and preserve them for future users, we require researchers to follow our care and handling rules while using our collections. A staff member will review these guidelines with you when you arrive.

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