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Digital Exhibits

North end of HCHBCommerce Research Library

History and Architecture

The Commerce Research Library is located in the Herbert C. Hoover Building (HCHB) in Washington, DC. It is one of several libraries serving Department employees and working to support the ongoing work of the agency. The historic Reading Room is a beautiful and welcoming physical space that has evolved and continued to provide value for almost a hundred years.

[Above] North end of the HCHB where the Patent Office was located.

Old Patent Office Reading Room

[Right]: Before 1921, the Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) and its library was located in the Old Patent Office Building, today home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Patent Office Comes and Goes

In 1932, when the construction of HCHB was complete, the building housed two libraries.  The seventh floor held the departmental library, and featured sprawling stacks directly above the staff area on the eighth floor that held materials related to many of the department's bureaus.  The north end of the first floor was occupied by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and included two ornamental spaces:  the Patent Search Room (now home to the White House Visitor's Center) and the Patent Office Library, also known as the Reading Room of the Scientific Library.  Prior to 1932, the PTO was located in the Old Patent Office Building, today home to the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. The 1932 move was a major undertaking and involved the transfer of more than 150,000 books.

The new Patent Office Library, “one of the finest scientific book collections in the world,” served as an important resource for PTO employees as they examined and approved or denied new patents.  Its collection of books, periodicals, and foreign patents were also widely used by inventors and their attorneys.  Between the adjacent Patent Search Room and Scientific Library they had access to approximately 8,000,000 United States and foreign patents.

The PTO underwent major changes in the early 1940's, starting soon after the United States entered World War II in December 1941.  To organize and support a major war effort, the government needed as much space in the nation’s capital as possible.  Several PTO units moved out of the Commerce Building and temporarily relocated to Richmond, Virginia, to clear space for war work. A few units remained behind, including the “searchroom, the scientific library, the patented files, the soft copies of patents.”  The PTO played an important role in the war effort, safeguarding the secrecy of defense inventions and reviewing new applications that might aid the military.

Reading Room just prior to completion

By 1946 the war was over and the PTO began the process of moving all of its units back to the Commerce building.  The move took time and was accomplished piecemeal, and highlighted the complications the PTO experienced without full access to its library.  “One of the difficulties,” the Washington Evening Star reported, “is the fact that the examining divisions… will not have immediate access to the scientific Patent office library in the Commerce building, which is essential to their work.”

The return to the Commerce building reunited the PTO but the organization soon found that it had outgrown the space.   Faced with overcrowded and uncomfortable conditions, the PTO began moving all of its operations to a new facility in Arlington, Virginia, in 1967.

[Above]: The Reading Room just prior to completion, 1931:  The Patent & Trademark Office (PTO) occupied the north end of the first floor, and this library space first housed the Patent Office Library, also known as the Reading Room of the Scientific Library.


The Law Library and Back Again

Reading Room in 1993, home of the Department's Legal & Legislative Collections.

The PTO move took two years, but by late 1968 it was clear that the reading room area would not remain vacant for long.  The Department of Commerce Law Library, which at the time occupied a space on the seventh floor of the building, was slated to move in.  Writing in December 1968, American University law professor Stanley J. Bougas enthusiastically endorsed the shift, remarking that the reading room’s “high ceilings with the decorative murals lend a cathedral-like atmosphere that inspires an aura conducive to legal research.”  The Law Library move may have begun as early as 1971.

In 1988, the library underwent a series of much-needed renovations to restore the library’s historic features, and repair the wear, soiling, and aging that had occurred over the past decades.

The library added a specially designed reference desk in 1989, which kept with the historic feel and atmosphere of the space, but also accommodated modern needs and included space for computers and keyboards.

As part of the ongoing renovations to HCHB, by 2010 the Departmental Library on the seventh floor was merged administratively and physically with the Law Library on the first floor. Today, the library is known as the Commerce Research Library, and serves all bureaus of Commerce (except PTO). Its collections include materials in the areas of business, trade, industry, economics, legal and legislative, travel, technology, professional development, as well as materials published by and about the Department of Commerce. The beautiful Reading Room is available for DOC staff to visit, work away from their offices, or enjoy a variety of library events.

Reading Room window view 

View of 15th St. from the Reading Room.

The two-story library is designed in the early Renaissance style, which featured columns, arches, and vaulted, often painted ceilings.

New York architectural firm York & Sawyer designed the space, and Barnet Philips, an architectural decorator, designed the decorative painting for all interior spaces of the Commerce building, including the library’s ceiling.  In order to complete the work in a timely manner, Philips painted the designs on canvas, which was then applied to the plaster ceilings. His paint designs took into account “the subduing effect of wainscoting [wooden paneling] and the array of color values of the books to be contained in the library,” using greens, reds, and a “neutral tone to carry the wood color through the decoration.” Philips worked on several other prestigious projects throughout his career, including the Central Savings Bank of New York, the New York Athletic Club, and the ship interiors of the S.S. California, Panama Pacific Line.

The room also features brass chandeliers, American black walnut bookcases and columns, and un-curtained windows that let in plenty of natural light.  The plaster walls are painted and texturized to resemble Caen limestone, a type of stone found in northwestern France.

The Reading Room, commonly referred to by staff as the "Law Library", in 2010 prior to merging with the Main Library.

The Reading Room now serves as HCHB's premier mid-size event space, available to HCHB staff for meetings and presentations.

Digital Exhibits researched and developed in coordination with History Associates Incorporated

Digital Exhibits researched and developed in coordination with History Associates Incorporated