The history of the rare book and manuscript collections dates back to the founding of King’s College in 1754 (now Columbia University). The libraries of the first president, Samuel Johnson, and of his son, and the third president, William Samuel Johnson, were presented by their descendents in 1914. Columbia’s early interest in acquiring significant books is well documented by a single acquisition during the presidency of William A. Duer: the “elephant folio” edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, published from 1827 to 1838. Columbia was one of only three American educational institutions to have subscribed to this now famous work in ornithology which has become one of the most prized books of all time.
In 1881, the bequest of Stephen Whitney Phoenix, a graduate of Columbia College brought to the University a library of 7,000 rare editions and manuscripts. Over the next thirty years gifts by Temple Emanu-el of New York City, Brander Matthews, and Robert Montgomery would build a foundation of Hebreaica, performing arts, and manuscripts.
The purchase of the internationally known library on the history of economics by Professor Edwin R. A. Seligman in 1929, and the creation of the Friends of the Libraries in the late 1920s would have a far reaching impact on the collection activities of the RBML. Indeed, the growth in rare book and manuscript resources during this period led the University to make provisions for the care and supervision of these specialized library materials. The Rare Book Department was established with Trustee approval on July 1, 1930—one of the earliest such units in North America.
Today the RBML has well over 500,000 rare books in its holdings, as well as some 74,000 linear feet of manuscripts and archival collections.