What is the Library?

Through its collections and programs, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington supports scholarly research and fosters new scholarship, provides a platform for educational outreach and serves as a center for leadership training, conferences, and gatherings inspired by Washington’s example.

The Library's early years

Possibly the earliest reference to a Library at Mount Vernon (other than George Washington’s library) comes in the 1885 Council Minutes of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) (page 14):

The Vice Regent for Maine moved, ‘That a committee be appointed to consider the best methods for filling the vacant shelves of the Library—said committee to consist of three members, the Vice Regents for Massachusetts, for Ohio and for Louisiana; and they are hereby requested to ascertain, from these widely separated localities, what sources of supply for this work may exist throughout the country.’ Approved.

For some time, the Council Minutes of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association include reports from a “Records Committee” and a “Library Committee”. The former dealt mostly with Association archival matters. The latter oversaw the acquisition, care, and maintenance of the 18th century books in General Washington’s study, manuscripts, and 19th and 20th century books about the Washingtons.

In the 1936 Council Minutes, the Library Committee (pages 45-46) spoke of how these two collections continued to evolve. The Mansion Library worked toward recreating Washington’s personal library; the Reference Library, “gathering together a useful lot of old and new books for the benefit of our Staff and the Vice-Regents. This aims to be a collection of rather wide scope for ready reference on the grounds. It has already proved itself of real service.”

In the 1938 annual report of the Regent referred to the reference library as a collection of “material relating not only to Washington and his life and time, but to the eighteenth century in general, including its arts and crafts, its horticulture and agriculture, and other related subjects.”

Re-envisioning the Library, 1983-2013

In 1983, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association broadened its vision beyond the preservation of Mount Vernon, and sought to extend the education of Washington’s life, achievements, and character - to the entire world. As part of this new vision, Mount Vernon first constructed the Ann Pamela Cunningham Administration Building, which opened in 1983, and provided space for a new education department, and additional space for the library and research center.

In 2010, that mission expanded to include the construction of a new research library. The MVLA announced the creation of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to further the organization’s mission of advancing appreciation and understanding of George Washington. The announcement resulted from a remarkable gift of $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the largest received in the history of the MVLA. The Campaign for the Library – with Gay Hart Gaines, the Vice Regent for Florida, as chair – set an ambitious goal to raise $100 million to construct the library. The Campaign exceeded its goal by raising $106.4 million by June 2013, all provided by private donors.

Groundbreaking took place in April 2011, and the Library opened its doors on September 27, 2013.

The Library, 2013-present

The Washington Library, now in a 45,000 square-foot facility, continues to develop its original collections, creates dynamic outreach programs, and provides seminars and training programs with a special focus on Washington’s leadership.

Expanding the library's collections

Library collections continue to grow to support the Library’s roles.

  • The General Collections contains more than 18,200 print and electronic holdings that aid the study of the Washingtons, the colonial and the founding era, the history of the Mount Vernon estate, and the MVLA.
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  • Special Collections includes approximately 2,800 rare books and 130 linear feet of special collections manuscript collections that document the lives of George and Martha Washington, the Washington, Custis, and related families, and the history of Mount Vernon before 1853. This also includes notable holdings such as a rare book collection that includes 104 volumes from George Washington’s personal library, approximately 500 volumes that match those owned by George Washington, and a growing collection of maps documenting the Revolutionary War Era.
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  • With more than 400 linear feet, the Archives of the MVLA documents the first national association for historic preservation, and hold the institutional records of the organization dating back to its founding in 1853.
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  • The Photo Archives provides a pictorial timeline of the history of the estate and the MVLA with approximately 200 linear feet of images including photographic prints, glass negatives, lantern slides, postcards, 35mm film, and sheet film.

Promoting scholarship about Washington and his time

Since 2013, the Library dramatically expanded its part to promote scholarship about George Washington and his time. Through efforts like the Research Fellowships awarded each year, digital and onsite programs, Center for Digital History, and the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, the library supports and highlights important ongoing scholarly work.

Highlighting George Washington's Leadership

The MVLA founded the George Washington Leadership Institute in 2013 to examine and teach about the leadership qualities of America’s first president. Learning from failure and mentorship, George Washington became one of the premier leaders of the young United States. His commitment to execution, focus on strategic vision, and emphasis on organizational character are still important lessons for 21st-century leaders to learn from and reflect upon.

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