History of Collections


King's College: 1754-1776

The beginnings of the library collections were two bequests made shortly after the establishment of King's College in New York City in 1754. First came the law library of Joseph Murray in 1759, to which was added the 1200-volume collection of the Reverend Duncombe Bristowe of London in 1763. The first librarian of the college was Robert Harpur, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy who was hired by the Board of Governors to catalog the holdings and account for the books, although there is no evidence of a catalog's having been produced.

Most of the collection was plundered and dispersed during the Revolutionary War. The remainder was hidden in St. Paul's Chapel, where workers coming to replace an organ discovered it in the early 1800's. The collection at that time numbered around 500 volumes.

Columbia College: 1784-1875

After the end of the Revolutionary War, King's College became Columbia College by an act of the State Legislature in May 1784. At first incorporated as part of the University of the State of New York, the College became an independent institution in 1787 with its own Board of Trustees.

During the early years of the new nation the library benefited from four gifts. In 1792 the State Legislature voted $1,500 to the college to enlarge the library and the trustees ordered that surplus money from study-rents and fines be used to purchase books for the library. Then in 1805, Major Edward Clarke left $1,500 for books and the trustees gave $1,500 in 1811.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, the Columbia College Library was still not an essential adjunct to course instruction, and this was reflected in the appointment of a series of part-time librarians, who also held teaching positions, to maintain the collection. When Nathaniel Moore became librarian in 1837, he was the first regular incumbent in that position. He prepared a manuscript subject catalog of the library's holdings that lasted until the Reverend Beverly Robinson Betts published an author catalog in 1874.

Still the collection grew through gifts, deposits, and purchases. In 1812, the College bought the library of Dr. Kemp, late Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. Columbia College purchased about 300 books between 1826 and 1829 from Lorenzo Da Ponte, Professor of Italian Language and Literature. These books formed the basis for the Paterno collection originally housed in the Casa Italiana and now in Butler Library. In 1838 the trustees purchased President Nathaniel Moore's library, which was rich in classics, philosophy, and Italian literature.

By 1850 the library owned only slightly less than 13,000 volumes, ranking below Harvard and Yale, which had 50,000 volumes each. Part of the explanation for this was that Columbia had always relied on other libraries in New York City to augment and and fill in gaps in its collection. The Columbia library existed to serve its students, officers, and alumni, and was not intended as a circulating or general library. In addition the College's librarians had a limited vision of their own roles and the scope of the library's potential.

Librarian William Alfred Jones described his philosophy of acquisitions as "selectness, rather than great extent." In 1861 the books were arranged in ten alcoves, designated for theology, law, science, scientific journals, dictionaries and encyclopedias, Greece and Rome, history, ancient history, and literature. Besides the college library, the School of Law, established in 1858, and the School of Mines, established in 1864, had their own libraries. By 1876 the Law Library had 4,000 volumes; Mines had 7,000.

Beginnings of the Columbia University System to the present

In 1864 Frederick A.P. Barnard became President of Columbia College. A professional educator, Barnard set the stage for Columbia's transformation into a modern institution of higher education. The modern university library resulted from several simultaneous developments. Many scholars who were influenced by European institutions urged the creation of an American university system. This meant an expanding curriculum, increased enrollments, and the establishment of new specialized schools of study that would place great demands on library resources and space. The library would have to improve traditional services for undergraduates while accommodating the growth of research activity by faculty and graduate and professional school students. The major development, however, was the evolution of the field of library science that began at the 1876 meeting of librarians at the Philadelphia Centennial. At Columbia, these changes begun under Frederick Barnard, were consolidated under Seth Low, and were expanded under Nicholas Murray Butler.

In 1876 the Columbia College Librarian was the Reverend Beverly Robinson Betts, and the collection numbered 31,390 volumes. Under Betts, the library made some substantial progress. Betts published the first author catalog of holdings, with a supplementary list of pamphlets, in 1874; directed the preparation of a catalog of the School of Mines collection; and in spite of the existence of Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, compiled his own "Index of Periodicals and Series."

During Betts' tenure the library also made several important acquisitions, most notably the botany library of Professor John Torrey in 1873 and the Phoenix Collection in 1881. Columbia also agreed to accept the deposit of the libraries of other institutions, such as the New York Academy of Science, in return for reciprocal privileges.

Still, Betts was of the old school and the trustees who appointed him viewed his job as custodial. Betts resented people who borrowed books and he boasted about returning more than one half of his annual book budget to the trustees.

For Columbia the year 1876 was a watershed, as it marked the arrival of John W. Burgess as Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law. He proved to be the agent for changing Columbia and its libraries into a modern university system.

When Burgess arrived at Columbia he was extremely disappointed in the college and its library. An advocate of graduate education, he encouraged the evolution of Columbia into a true university with professional schools. With Barnard supporting him, the trustees gave Burgess a separate appropriation of $2,000 for a collection of books and documents in history, political science, and public law. Burgess consulted European and American scholars before purchasing 1,500 volumes to begin his library. In 1880 Burgess had convinced Barnard and the trustees to establish a graduate School of Political Science and this resulted in 1890 in the formal founding of Columbia as a university.

With these new developments Columbia faced a critical shortage of space. In 1856 the College had moved from downtown to 49th Street and Madison Avenue, but expansion had already overwhelmed these facilities. Barnard encouraged the consolidation of the libraries of the College, the School of Mines, and the School of Law into one new building, for which funds were appropriated in 1881.

In 1883 a library committee chaired by Frederick Augustus Schermerhorn presented a progressive report recommending the reorganization of the library, consolidating several collections in the new building. The report also recognized the need for increased expenditures for acquisitions. As a result of this report, the library staff was reorganized, and Betts resigned.

To replace Betts, Barnard and Burgess supported the appointment of Melvil Dewey, whose philosophy had led to the development of library work as a profession. Dewey concentrated on administrative reform, cataloging, improving reference services, and expanding interlibrary loan facilities. Dewey limited acquisitions to books on subjects taught in the College, or those subjects selected for special development. Most of the increase in collection size was due to the resurgence in educational philanthropy.

The trustees grew to be increasingly critical of Dewey. They objected to the expense and slowness involved in organizing and cataloging the collection. Disagreements arose over his classification system, heavy appropriations, and arrogant attitude that led to poor relations with the faculty. In 1888 when Barnard resigned as President, Dewey was suspended, and shortly after that he resigned.

Dewey's successor was George Hall Baker, during whose administration Columbia became a university. As a result of Dewey's difficulties with the trustees, the title was changed, the salary lowered, and the scope of the Librarian's activities limited to that of managing the library. Baker was particularly experienced in collection development; between 1883 and 1889 he had supervised library purchases.

Baker was especially interested in acquiring materials to meet the specific needs of university departments. He analyzed deficiencies in the collections, but his long-range plans for developing a balanced collection in all fields were thwarted by the lack of funds. Because of arrears in cataloging and space problems, Baker accepted gifts only if they could be treated as routine acquisitions. Among the gifts he did accept were the 685 volumes of Barnard's library; the books that formed the foundation of Avery Library in 1890; the new law library of Charles M. Da Costa in 1891, including English, French, and German classics; the Alexander T. Cotheal Library in the applied sciences; the John Strong Newberry Collection of geological books; the Otto Struve Science Collection; and the Temple Emanu-el Library of Biblical and Rabinical Literature. As for purchases, Baker bought only required volumes, society transactions, and periodicals.

In 1895 Columbia President Seth Low gave one million dollars for a library to occupy the most prominent spot on the newly acquired Morningside Heights campus. The library, dedicated to Low's father, opened in 1897. Although built to accommodate 750,000 volumes, it was unable by the early 1900's to provide sufficient space for readers, staff and books.

Despite improvements in organization, the growth of the collections, and the new building, Baker was increasingly criticized, particularly for his inability to delegate responsibility. He spent too much time personally reviewing acquisitions and supervising cataloging. He retired in 1899 under pressure. The collection had grown to 275,000 volumes.

Low chose James Hulme Canfield, the President of Ohio State University as Baker's replacement. During his administration the library grew to 434,194 volumes, but Canfield's purchasing policies favored graduate needs. He believed that a library of 10,000 carefully selected volumes could serve undergraduate course requirements and in 1907 the College Library was the first such library in a university to be designated solely for undergraduate students.

Canfield was opposed to the purchase of entire libraries because they often contained duplicates of materials already owned by Columbia. At the same time, however, even though the space shortage was acute, Canfield recognized the advantages of acquiring strong subject collections, and Columbia received on deposit the libraries of the New York Southern Society, the Holland Society, the American Mathematical Society, the Reform Club, and the Germanistic Society of America. Duplicates were weeded out by gifts, exchange, and sale. Canfield wanted a working library, not one filled with infrequently consulted rare books.

During Canfield's time Columbia acquired a number of other significant collections, including the De Witt Clinton Papers, the Pierre Bayle Papers, and the Anton Seidel Memorial Library of musical scores and personal papers. In addition, the library received five endowments: the Law-Book Trust Fund, the Carl Schurz Library Fund for German language and literature, the James S. Carpentier Fund for the School of Law, the Joseph Pulitzer Fund for journalism, and the Nathaniel Currier Fund for the general library.

In 1903 the trustees' committee on the library placed the libraries of all the colleges and schools that formed the University under the authority of the Librarian. This included Barnard College, with only a nucleus of 120 volumes; Teachers College, with a collection of over 14,000 volumes and 165 subscriptions; and the College of Pharmacy, whose library was not very accessible and whose books were uncataloged.

An energetic administrator, Canfield brought prestige, high academic credentials, and a concern for library organization to his tenure. He worked closely with the faculty on book selection and cared about his staff and the quality of service to researchers. His sudden death in 1909 left no apparent successor.

The trustees finally agreed upon William Dawson Johnston, who had been at Brown University, the Library of Congress, and the Bureau of Education. Johnston believed that a good library was one that was used and he encouraged accessibility of material, a specialized staff, and publicity concerning the library's holdings. Among Johnston's more important acquisitions were the Samuel Johnson (first president of Columbia) papers, the Frederick William Holls Papers, the music library of James Fech, and the medical library of Edward G. Janeway. The collection soon grew to more than 500,000 volumes.

From 1915 to 1926, the library had two acting Librarians, each of whom gave a portion of his time to the administration of the library system: Dean P. Lockwood, Assistant Professor of Philology, and William H. Carpenter, the Provost of the University. By the time of Charles C. Williamson's appointment in 1926, the library had more than one million volumes.

Even without full-time librarians these years were a period of remarkable acquisitions and improvements. Purchases included the Bushe-Fox Collection in English law, the Chinese collection, the first papyrus documents, and the first films. Gifts included the Marvin Scudder Library, the Montgomery Collection, and the Daniel E. Hervey Music Library. In addition, the Medical Library received assistance from the Robert Grosvenor, Abraham Jacobi, and Alexander Weinstein funds.

Under the presidency of Nicholas Murray Butler, 1902 to 1945, the library flourished. Of special note is the development of a reference collection under the direction of Isadore Gilbert Mudge.

The entire period from 1876 to 1926 was a time of extensive change and growth in the library. During these years Columbia established the foundations of its currently superb law, medical, and business libraries; began the Chinese collection; formally organized the Columbiana Library; made the undergraduate library responsive to student needs; developed one of the most outstanding reference collections in the country; and saw the emergence of Avery as the world's pre-eminent architecture library.

As always, space remained-and remains-a critical problem. With a generous gift of four million dollars from Edward S. Harkness of Standard Oil, the construction of South Hall (later renamed Butler Library) was begun in 1930. After South Hall opened in 1934, only special collections, the East Asian holdings, Columbiana, and the mathematics and general sciences books remained in Low.

Butler Library's storage capacity was designed to be more than two million volumes; the library system already owned 1,250,000. Butler was also to provide all technical operations, circulation and reference services, as well as to house five departmental libraries.

After 1940 the growth of the library began to decelerate and Columbia's collection size moved steadily down from third (Harvard, 4,159,606; Yale, 2,955,539). Some of the problems the Libraries faced were the continuing need to distinguish between research and general collections, the lack of funds to purchase new materials and to preserve old ones, and the competing demands of readers and materials for available space.

Warren J. Haas, who was University Librarian from 1970 to 1978, was responsible for shaping the library system into the dynamic organization it is today. During Haas's tenure the position of University Librarian was elevated to the Vice Presidential level. In making this change the University demonstrated the high level of support it provides for its library and information services.

Following a landmark study of the organization of Columbia as a major research library in the early 1970's, a significant restructuring was implemented in 1974. The twenty-six library units in the Columbia system were organized into three subject-oriented divisions (Humanities and History, Science and Engineering, and Social Science) and five Distinctive Collections, so-called because their collections are of unique depth and nationally significant excellence (Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Augustus Long Health Sciences Library, Law and International Law Library, and Rare Book and Manuscript Library). During Haas's tenure the first recording of collection development policies on a subject by subject basis was completed, and the Preservation Department was established.

As early as 1900 there was an awareness at Columbia of the need to solve the growing problems of rising resource costs, deterioration of library materials, the lack of available space, and the competing library needs of the many disciplines represented at the University. There was also an increasing recognition that the library would never be able to collect all materials needed by users.

By 1911, the Libraries had established what amounted to a cooperative collection development program with the New York Public Library, by which the New York Public Library submitted its newest acquisitions for Columbia faculty to review for purchase by the University. At the same time, these libraries produced a union catalog containing information on the important collections of all metropolitan libraries. By the early 1970's, Columbia University Libraries' participation in cooperative endeavors had grown to include the Farmington Plan, Public Law 480, the National Union Catalog, the New York State Interlibrary Loan Network (NYSILL), and the New York Metropolitan Reference and Research Agency (METRO). In the late 1970s Columbia served as a charter member in the formation of the Research Libraries Group (RLG), which aimed for more effective management and greater accessibility of the resources necessary for the scholars in its member institutions. Columbia subsequently has become a member of the OCLC shared cataloging and collections system, the Center for Research Libraries, the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium, and through the New York Comprehensive Research Libraries organization, participates in the New York Consortia of Consortia and the International Consortia of Library Consortia. It is currently working with Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania to develop a shared bibiliographic catalog and to permit user-directed document delivery services.

Today Columbia's holdings total more than 8 million volumes, more than 5.2 million microform units, and 28 million manuscript items; nearly 60,000 serials are received. The Libraries also provide access to a wide range of information and data resources, including multimedia and computer-based services.


Materials excerpted from: Guide to the Research Collections of the Columbia University Libraries, by Barbara A. Chernow (1984).