History of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) is located on
the 6th floor of Butler Library, on the University's Morningside Campus. RBML is Columbia's principal repository for primary source research material.

The collections span more than 4,000 years, from early Mesopotamia to contemporary works. In addition to printed materials, the library holds cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, papyri, Coptic ostraca, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, maps, mathematical and astronomical instruments, early printing presses and paper-making equipment, type specimens, theater set models, masks, puppets, works of art, posters, photographs, realia, sound and moving image recordings, and born-digital materials.

The library also has authors' manuscripts from the sixteenth century to Herman Wouk and Allen Ginsberg, the correspondence of individuals such as John Milton and Hart Crane, as well as archives as varied as those of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Daly's Theater of New York City, the Citizens Union and the Woman Suffrage Association.

Areas of collecting emphasis include American history, Russian and East European émigré history and culture, children’s literature, Columbia University history, comics and cartoons, philanthropy and social reform, the history of science and mathematics, human rights, Hebraica and Judaica, Latino arts and activism, literature and publishing, medieval and renaissance
manuscripts, oral history, performing arts, and printing history and the book arts.

The creation of the rare book and manuscript collections date to the
founding of the University. Columbia University was founded as King’s College in 1754. The first major collections were the libraries of the first president, Samuel Johnson, and of his son and the third president, William Samuel Johnson, presented by their descendants in 1914. The 120 shelves of their books comprise the typical reading of an eighteenth century academic and clergyman.

The College's interest in acquiring significant books is well exhibited by a single early acquisition during the presidency of William A. Duer (1829). The College subscribed to 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 acquired this now famous work.

The 1881 bequest of Stephen Whitney Phoenix brought Columbia its first collector's library, around seven thousand rare editions and manuscripts laid the foundation for the strengths of RBML.

Professor Richard J.H. Gottheil was the leading figure in arranging the gift by Temple Emanu-el of New York City of its distinguished library of 2,500 printed and fifty manuscripts of Hebraica in 1892.

Four years after the Temple Emanu-el gift in 1896, President Frederick A.P. Barnard (1864-1889), made the decision (which was voted on and accepted by the Trustees) to make Columbia a University and to build up the library so that it could support graduate level research.

The beginning of the active acquisition of collections of original manuscripts,
autograph letters and documents was marked by William Schermerhorn's gift in 1902 of the De Witt Clinton papers.

Professor Brander Matthews began his collection in 1912, which later would be internationally known as the Dramatic Museum collection.

After the Matthews collection, the next large collection given to the Library was the Joan of Arc collection. The Joan of Arc Collection, formed by Acton Griscom and donated by him in 1920,was comprised of several thousand books and manuscripts concerned with the heroine of French history.

From 1924-1928 Professor Robert H. Montgomery presented his collection on the history of accountancy. Among its manuscript holdings are a ledger-
daybook kept by Josiah Winslow in Plymouth Colony from 1696 to 1759, and the account book of the English artist John Flaxman from 1809 to 1826.

In 1928 David Eugene Smith and George Arthur Plimpton founded a group that would prove crucial to the Library’s success. This was the Friends of the Libraries, which was re-activated in 1951.

The first major effort of the University to acquire a collection of rare research material by purchase occurred in 1929 when the internationally known library on the history of economics formed by Professor Edwin R. A. Seligman was bought. The purchase of the Seligman library considerably broadened the collecting parameters of the Library, and its acquisition marked the beginning of the spectacular growth of the Library's specialized resources during the 1930s. Around the same time a bibliographer was hired to buy out of print books, curate exhibitions, and teach. This was in part a way to pave the road for the development of the
Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and also to prove to future donors that the Library had a way of taking care of rare books.

On July 1, 1930, the Rare Book Department was established with Trustee
approval, and Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt became its director from 1930 until 1939. Just before the official formation of the Department, Samuel S. Dale donated his library on weights and measures, which was accepted by trustees on June 3, 1930.

David Eugene Smith bequeathed his collection to the Library in 1931. Smith’s gift encouraged his friend George Arthur Plimpton to donate his library. The Plimpton library, which had been placed on deposit in 1932, was formally presented in 1936, and contained more than sixteen thousand volumes. The 317 medieval and renaissance manuscripts form the largest such group in the library.

Two years after the formal presentation of Plimpton’s library in 1938, the department was operating under the name “Special Collections,” and had two separate reading rooms: one for manuscripts and the other for rare books. In 1946, the name of the division was officially changed from the Rare Book Department to the Department of Special Collections when Roland O. Baughman (1946-1967) was appointed its head succeeding Charles Adams (1939-1945).

The next large acquisition for the Library was the purchase of the John Jay papers in 1956. This purchase starts a large influx of manuscripts during the 1960s. In 1970 the gift of the Random House papers start the collecting of papers from editors, publishers, and literary agents. Four years later, the Jack Harris Samuels Library was bequeathed by the collector's mother, Mollie Harris Samuels, in 1970, and was formally transferred to the University in 1974.

The name of the division was finally changed to the current name of Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 1975. In 1984, the new Rare Book
and Manuscript Library opened in redesigned and renovated space on 6th floor of Butler, including two public reading rooms.

In RBML there are entire libraries of printed materials devoted to special subjects, such as Greek and Roman authors, the Knickerbocker School of writers, history of economics and banking, American theater, accountancy, weights and measures, the New York Society of Tammany, Joan of Arc, Mary Queen of Scots, Hector Berlioz, mathematics and astronomy.

Broadening the extraordinary diversity of the holdings are substantial or representative collections of Greek and Roman coins, historical bindings,
mathematical instruments, portraits of literary figures, original drawings of illustrators, railroad color prints, fore-edge paintings, miniature books, and the like.

For decades, the Columbia Libraries have benefited from the generosity of those who have given books and manuscripts, who have donated funds for the purchase of collections, and who have encouraged their friends and associates to add to the special collections, in an attempt to preserve the past and enhance the future.

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.


Ashton, Jean. “An Introduction by Jean Ashton, Director of RBML.” In Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures from the Special Collections of Columbia’s Libraries. USA: Columbia University in the City of New York, 2004.

Christine Lovelace, work on RBML office files 2005.

Columbia University Archives website timelines.

Lohf, Kenneth A. “Collections of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.” In The Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University: Collections and Treasures, 11-32. New York: Columbia University Libraries, 1985.

Oral Interview with Jane Siegel

RBML and Special Collections Office Files

Somerville, Robert. “Some Remarks on the Early History of Columbia University’s Collections of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts.” In Rare Book and Manuscript Occasional Publication 1: Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Columbia University, edited by Beatrice Terrien-Somerville, page 1, 6. New York City: Columbia University Libraries, 1991.