About Starr Library

The C. V. Starr East Asian Library is one of the major collections for the study of East Asia in the United States, with over 1,000,000 volumes of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Mongol, Manchu, and Western-language materials and almost 7,500 periodical titles, and more than 55 newspapers. Subject emphasis is on the humanities and social sciences. The Chinese collection is particularly strong in history, philosophy, traditional literature, and increasingly film studies. The Japanese collection excels in literature, history, and philosophy. The Korean collection is deepest in history and is growing in literature. The Tibetan collection, which originally centered on traditional Tibetan subjects, has expanded to include modern Tibet as well. These primary materials are supported by an extensive collection of secondary materials on East Asian subjects in Western languages. The Kress Special Collections Reading Room provides access to the rare book, special, and archival collections, especially strong in Chinese local histories and genealogies, Japanese Edo-period woodblock-printed books, and the Korean Yi Song-yi Collection of rare books, as well as extensive collections of non-print materials such as ancient Chinese oracle bones, Chinese paper god prints from the early twentieth century,  Edo-period Japanese woodblock prints, maps, and paintings. These special collections are non-circulating materials, and are available for use by readers in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room. The library's microfilm collection and East Asian feature films and documentaries on DVD are extensive. Both collections are stored offsite.  An increasing number of electronic databases is also offered, most of them through the E-resources link on the Libraries homepage, some as stand-alones on designated terminals in our reading room, one each for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.


The East Asian Library has its origins in 1902, when the University Trustees approved the establishment of a Department of Chinese, based on a donation made specifically for that purpose. Frederick Hirth was appointed the first Professor of Chinese at Columbia, as well as the first curator of the Chinese book collection.

The then President of Columbia University, Seth Low, on receiving this donation, wrote to E. H. Conger, American Minister to Peking, asking for help to build a Chinese library and a Chinese Museum, in addition to the professorship. Li Hung-chang, regarded as prime minister to the Empress Dowager, wrote to Conger on November 3, 1901, four days before Li's death. On behalf of the Empress Dowager, Columbia University was given the 5,044-volume encyclopedia, Tu shu ji cheng, which was received early in 1902, forming the foundation of the Chinese collection. (Unfortunately, Professor Hirth rebound the encyclopedia in Western style, for ease of handling.)

Collecting Japanese materials was begun in 1927 by Professor Ryusaku Tsunoda, who successfully solicited donations of materials, including approximately 5,000 volumes from the Imperial Household Ministry. As studies of Japan grew and developed, the Department of Chinese was expanded into the Department of Chinese and Japanese.

The first Korean materials were acquired by a donation of nearly 1,000 books by Korean students at Columbia University in 1931. Systematic acquisitions did not begin, however, until 1953, but have increased over the years. In the late 1990s, Starr began actively to collect Tibetan language materials as well.

In 1961, the Law School, which had occupied Kent Hall, finished its new building, and the school and its library moved across Amsterdam Avenue. The East Asian Library's collections were then moved out of Low Memorial Library and moved into the former Law Library in 300 Kent. The stained glass image of Justice on the east wall of the reading room is a reminder of the Law Library's occupancy. Staff and patrons were delighted with the expanded space, the beautiful architecture, and the dedicated facility. The Department of Chinese and Japanese acknowledged its own growth with the change of its name, in 1966, to the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.

The East Asian Library collections were for many years divided by language, and cataloged using the Harvard-Yenching classification system for Chinese books, the Nippon Decimal system for Japanese books, and the Korean Decimal system for Korean books. Western-language holdings used the Dewey Decimal system until 1967, when Columbia University Libraries began to catalog all new Western-language acquisitions in the Library of Congress Classification system.

In 1981, several additional changes were made. With an endowment from the C. V. Starr Foundation, renovations were made to the entrance of the Library, and down in the stacks, several large rooms of expanded stack space were added, including the skylight room for art history folios, the Kress Seminar room, and rare book stacks. In addition, on line cataloging records for all new acquisitions were created for the first time, with Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts, into RLIN, the database of the Research Libraries Group, and classified in the Library of Congress classification system. All new materials were shelved together, by call number, regardless of language. As of 2010, after re-classification projects were completed, the LC Classification system remains as the sole classification system for the circulating collection in our Kent Hall stacks. (Some materials stored in rare books and special collections stacks and offsite
still carry the legacy call number systems.)

Artifacts in the Library

The large wooden cabinet on the right side of the main reading room, in front of the staff offices was built for the Japanese Pavilion of the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It is based on a design at Toshogu, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, in Nikko, Japan, which in turn was based on Chinese designs.

The Buddhist statue of the Bodhisattva Jizo-sama is a late eighteenth or early nineteenth-century Japanese gilded woodcarving, donated to Columbia by J. G. Phelps Stokes.

The stained glass windows featuring Justice, on the east side of the reading room, were donated by Anna Chesebrough Wildey in 1913, in memory of her husband, Pierre Westcott Wildey. He had a BA from Columbia, 1860; an MA, and LLB, 1863; as well as a master's degree from Yale, 1865.