History of Collections

I. King's College: 1754-1776

The institution now known as Columbia University began its life in 1754 as King's College. The College's library collections began with two substantial gifts: the law library of Joseph Murray (received in 1759), and over one thousand volumes from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (received in 1763). Most of the latter came from the library of the Reverend Duncombe Bristowe of London.

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. There is no evidence that a catalog was produced during his tenure.

Due to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, instruction at King’s College halted in 1776. College Hall was commandeered by the British for use as a military hospital from 1776-1783; the College effectively ceased operations for those years. The library collection did not survive the War intact. (McCaughey, 49-50). Columbia Libraries Information Online (CLIO) currently includes records for only 111 items that have remained from King's College (New York, N.Y.). Library.


II. Columbia College: 1784-1895

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. By 1795, the course of study included rhetoric and belles lettres, mathematics, natural philosophy, moral philosophy, Greek and Latin, Oriental languages, economics, French, and law.

The College was not a large institution. “Between 1800 and 1850…Columbia College enrollments…operated within a narrow band ranging from a high of 125 to a low of 75 students” (McCaughey, 81). Library use was not integral to the curriculum, and library hours and privileges were relatively restricted.

The library collections were, nevertheless, growing through gifts, deposits, and purchases. Some key acquisitions of the period were: the library of Dr. Kemp, late Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy (1812); about 300 books from Lorenzo Da Ponte, Professor of Italian Language and Literature (1826-29); and the library of Professor Nathaniel Moore, which was rich in classics, philosophy, and Italian literature (1838).   

By 1850 the Columbia College Library owned slightly fewer than 13,000 volumes.  Columbia College Librarian William Alfred Jones (whose tenure was 1851-1865) described his philosophy of acquisitions as "selectness, rather than great extent."

In 1861, the College Library collection was 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) each had its own library. By 1876 the Law Library had 4,000 volumes; and the library of the School of Mines (forerunner of our current School of Engineering and Applied Science) had 7,000.

The term of Frederick A. P. Barnard as President of the College (1864-1889) was a time of transformation for the institution as a whole. Barnard facilitated and oversaw an expansion of the curriculum, an increase in enrollments, and the establishment of new programs of graduate and professional study.

While Columbia, under Barnard’s leadership, was in the process of moving towards a newly expansive  self-definition as a modern American university, its College Library was soon to undergo a highly visible identity crisis. The Reverend Beverly Robinson Betts, who served as Columbia College Librarian from 1865-1883, articulated and followed a philosophy of collections building that was marked by logical fissures and tensions that would soon render the library highly vulnerable to faculty critique. Betts acknowledged that it was a “proper” goal of the library “to provide for the reasonable wants of the Professors and Students”; but he also embraced an ideal “of forming a library of moderate extent indeed, but of the highest character” (quoted in Linderman 51-52). Given the conservatism of Betts’s philosophy, it was hardly surprising that the library failed to maintain a vital and responsive relationship to a curriculum that was growing in depth and complexity.

The library’s lack of adequate support for the curriculum was noted by John W. Burgess, a Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law who arrived at Columbia in 1875. Burgess let it be known that he was extremely disappointed in both the College Library and the Law Library, which he found seriously lacking in modern books in general, as well as in key serial publications needed for research in his field (Linderman, 43-44).

With President 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 convinced Barnard and the Trustees to establish a graduate School of Political Science.

In 1883 a Trustees’ Library Committee, chaired by Frederick Augustus Schermerhorn, presented a progressive report recommending the reorganization of the libraries, as well as increased expenditures for acquisitions. As a result of this report: the library staff was reorganized; a new building was built to house together the libraries of the College, the School of Mines, and the School of Law; and Betts resigned.

It should be acknowledged that Betts did make significant contributions to the libraries. He published the first author catalog of holdings, with a supplementary list of pamphlets, in 1874; and he directed the preparation of a catalog for the School of Mines collection. He also made several important acquisitions, most notably the botany library of Professor John Torrey in 1873; and the Phoenix Collection in 1881.

To replace Betts, Barnard and Burgess supported the appointment of Melvil Dewey (1883-1888), an energetic organizer looking for a large library in which to try out his decimal classification system. In 1876 Dewey had helped to found the American Library Association. He also served as its first Secretary. At Columbia, 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 other subjects selected for special development.




A. FROM 1896 TO 1968

It was in 1896 that Columbia College officially became Columbia University. This was near the end of the term served by Dewey's successor George Hall Baker (1889 to 1899). Baker was especially interested in acquiring materials to meet the specific needs of university departments. To this end, he analyzed deficiencies in the collections. His long-range plans for developing a balanced collection in all relevant fields, however, were thwarted by a lack of funds.

Baker thought creatively about collection building and access within the wider context of New York City. He published in 1896 a sixteen-page pamphlet Preliminary Scheme for the Relation between Columbia University Library and The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, in the Matter of the Development of the Libraries and the Purchase of Books. Baker’s Scheme designated collections under relatively broad subject groupings (such as “Ancient and Oriental History”) and recommended under each subject one basic collecting approach for Columbia University and another, complementary, approach for New York Public Library. The essential distinction was that, for each subject, one library should collect “as fully as possible,” whereas the other should collect “only as far as deemed necessary for its own purposes” (Preliminary Scheme, 15).

In recommending respective collection responsibilities, Baker considered the strength of each institution’s existing collections as well as the desirability of Columbia’s academic departments finding support in Columbia’s own collections. Although Baker’s Preliminary Scheme was never actually to be implemented, it would serve as the initial basis for productive conversations between Baker’s successor, James Hulme Canfield, and John Shaw Billings, first Director of the newly consolidated New York Public Library (Linderman, 239-40, 289-91).

Among the collections Baker acquired were the 685 volumes of Frederick A. P. 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 Rabbinical Literature. By the time Baker retired, in 1899, the collection had grown to 275,000 volumes.

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. Low Library (dedicated to Low's father) opened in 1897. Low chose James Hulme Canfield, the President of Ohio State University, as Baker's replacement. During Canfield’s administration (1899 to 1909), the library grew to 434,194 volumes. His purchasing policies favored graduate-student support. He believed that a library of 10,000 carefully selected volumes could meet undergraduate needs. In 1907 Canfield opened a College Study, distinct from the main library space, for this core undergraduate collection.

During Canfield's time, Columbia acquired a number of significant collections, including the De Witt Clinton Papers, the Pierre Bayle Papers, and the Anton Seidl Memorial Library of musical scores and personal papers. 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 a nucleus of only 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 provided 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 (whose tenure was 1909 to 1914) 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 papers of Samuel Johnson (first president of Columbia), 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.

The period from 1876 to 1926 was, overall, a time of extensive change and growth in the libraries, whose collections were becoming increasingly varied in subject, language, format, and research value. During these years Columbia established the foundations of its law, medical, and business libraries; began the Chinese collection; formally organized the Columbiana Library; developed one of the most outstanding reference collections in the country; and saw the establishment of Avery as the world's pre-eminent architecture library. Added to the collections, for the first time, were papyrus documents, cuneiform tablets, phonograph recordings, and films. Purchases included the Bushe-Fox Collection in English law. Gifts included the Marvin Scudder Library, the Montgomery Collection, and the Daniel E. Hervey Music Library. By 1926, the library held more than one million volumes.

Space remained a critical problem. With a generous gift of four million dollars from Edward S. Harkness of Standard Oil, the construction of South Hall 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 Library. “In 1946, South Hall was renamed Butler Library, in honor of Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia from 1902 to 1945.”

Recognizing the increasing amount of material needing special care, and to encourage further donations, the Rare Book Department was established in 1930. It took on existing collections of rare books and manuscripts (such as the Phoenix bequest, the Johnson gift, and the new Seligman purchase), and fostered large donations such as the Smith (1931) and the Plimpton (1936) collections. Renamed "Special Collections" in 1938 in recognition of the variety of materials being brought together, it is now the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In 1951 the Library initiated the serial publication Columbia Library Columns, which would continue until 1997. It remains of key interest for its coverage of selected contemporary issues, retrospective history, and significant additions to special collections.

In 1956 Columbia libraries reported total holdings of 2,876,815 cataloged volumes. This ranked it as fourth in size among US academic research libraries. Harvard was first, with over 6,000,000 volumes. While the report that presents these figures acknowledges the importance of “the quantitative aspect,” it also utilizes other standards of collection assessment. “The test of a collection’s value,” the report asserts, “is its usefulness.” One measure of usefulness that it identifies is “the depth of collecting materials in particular fields,” which has an impact on how research in those field can be conducted. In this perspective, the report discusses the nationally recognized importance of Columbia’s Avery, Law, and East Asian Libraries (Columbia University. President's Committee, 25-36). This report also assesses library usefulness in light of the impressions of its primary user communities, measured through questionnaires distributed to Columbia faculty and students.  (ibid., A-7 - A-17, A-21 - A-44).


B. From 1969 to 2001

Warren J. Haas served as University Librarian from 1969 to 1978, followed by Patricia Battin, from 1978 to 1987. The single most important event of the 1970s and 1980s was the systematic reorganization of the Libraries. It was in 1972 that the consultants Booz, Allen, and Hamilton completed their book-length study Organization and Staffing of the Libraries of Columbia University. In 1974 a new organizational structure, based on their plan, was implemented. 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 (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).

It was during this period also that the first recording of Columbia University Libraries’ collection development policies on a subject-by-subject basis was completed (1972). In the area of interlibrary cooperation, Columbia became a founding member of the Research Libraries Group (RLG) (1973), and continued its participation in the New York Metropolitan Reference and Research Agency (METRO).

Columbia University Libraries’ collections began to be more easily discoverable with the introduction of CLIO (Columbia Libraries Information Online) in 1984. As of Fall 1996, CLIO contained “records for all materials cataloged since 1981” along with “many earlier records”--more than 2.6 million records in all (Record, 6 September 1996, 6). Researchers aiming for thoroughness, then as now, needed to consult relevant card catalogs in addition to CLIO, although the number of card catalogs containing unique records continually declines as the Libraries integrates these records into CLIO. It was recognized early on that our researchers needed online access to far more than records of items held at Columbia. That recognition was part of the inspiration behind CLIO PLUS, a gateway system, making its debut in 1992, which also provided access to periodical indexes, additional library catalogs, and other resources. CLIO PLUS was a precursor of the more sophisticated and broad-based gateway to information resources on the World Wide Web that was initially known as Library Web (Record, 12 September 1997, 6). Library Web has gone through many redesigns to reach its current vigorous iteration as Libraries Home.

Elaine P. Sloan served as University Librarian from 1988-2001. Her tenure saw two major innovations based on intensive and complex interlibrary cooperation. Those innovations have grown in value and substance over time and remain a vital part of how researchers at Columbia and selected other major libraries think about and access collections materials.

The first of these accomplishments was the implementation of BorrowDirect, which “went live in the fall of 1999 after a four year planning and development period during which the three founding institutions, Columbia, Penn, and Yale, partnered with the Research Libraries Group (RLG) for project management and assessment” (BorrowDirect). This service has by now grown to a point at which it allows affiliated users to request materials from 13 major academic research libraries, with most materials being delivered within three business days.

A shortage of space for increasing collections had been an inevitable and recurring problem for Columbia as it has been for all research libraries. In 2000, Columbia University, The New York Public Library, and Princeton University joined together to form a Research Collections and Preservation Consortium (ReCAP), which owns and operates a shared high-density shelving facility in Princeton, New Jersey. This facility provides an optimal preservation and retrieval environment for materials that have exceeded the shelving capacity available in their home institutions.


C. From 2001 onwards

The years from 2001 to 2018 have been a time of rapid growth and evolution for the Libraries. This growth has been fostered by dynamic library leadership engaging actively with the possibilities offered by increasingly sophisticated digital and consortial environments. In many cases, Columbia itself has been a leading contributor in shaping those environments and possibilities. James G. Neal served as University Librarian from 2001 to 2014. Priorities during his tenure included the expansion of electronic resources, global collections, and special collections; and the development of inter-institutional cooperative programs.

In the realm of electronic resources, the Libraries have seen significant progress both in the creation of open-access collections and in the acquisition of commercially-licensed databases. In the area of open access, we have provided full-image access to many groupings of our significant primary-source materials in Digital Library Collections. Through Web archiving projects, such as the Human Rights Web Archive, we have captured in unprecedented detail, and made available for present and future scholarship, the changing content of significant subject groupings of Web sites.  We have facilitated unfettered access to the output of Columbia scholars in Academic Commons. In the area of commercially-licensed databases, we have radically expanded our range of offerings, making it possible for Columbia researchers to search across and compare vast ranges of primary and secondary sources in full-text and full-image formats.

We have also seen enhanced access to collections in Manhattan. The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, world-renowned for its extensive collections on theology and religion, has always been counted as an important resource for Columbia researchers. In 2004 it was incorporated into the Columbia University Libraries system and its records were integrated into the CLIO catalog. In 2011 Columbia University, the New York Public Library, and New York University “launched an initiative to expand access and use of collections and better serve their users”-- the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI).

Cooperative collection development had been a subject of discussion at Columbia since as early as the tenure of George Hall Baker (1889 to 1899). It has become increasingly a reality in recent years with the implementation and maintenance of a number of successful agreements (in areas such as musical scores; and Latin American; Russian, Eurasian & East European; South Asian; and Tibetan Studies) between Columbia and a range of institutional partners. Such agreements have enabled the participating institutions to build systematically collections that, considered together, offer a wider range of materials with far less unplanned-for duplication than would have been heretofore possible.

Perhaps the most widely heralded special collections acquisition in recent years has been the 2012 co-acquisition of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archives by the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library and The Museum of Modern Art.

The tenure of Ann Thornton as Vice Provost & University Librarian began in 2015. By early 2016 library staff were involved in a process of listening, thinking, and planning together for an updated set of Strategic Directions for the Libraries. One of those directions, Advance Knowledge, has a specific focus on collections. “By working inter-institutionally,” this Strategic Direction asserts, we “provide persistent access to millions of collection materials . . . creating the greatest opportunities for scholars and students to encounter global thought.”

One recent and remarkable example of how such inter-institutional cooperation can work to the benefit of all involved is the implementation of the ReCAP Shared Collection. More than seven million items from Princeton and New York Public (a specific subset of the materials they hold at ReCAP) have been integrated into Columbia’s CLIO catalog, through which they may be requested for delivery to Columbia library locations.  

By now the materials that Columbia Libraries itself has collected include “resources in more than 450 languages and primary source materials that span over 4,000 years of human thought. The collection is comprised of 13 million volumes, over 160,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, and graphic and audio-visual materials.” (About Columbia University Libraries) Each year, Columbia adds thousands of new titles to the collections. Cooperative acquisitions partnerships with NYU, Cornell, Princeton, New York Public Library, and Harvard allow us to collectively reduce duplication of holdings, increase our ability to more extensively acquire materials from historically under-represented communities and areas of the world, further expanding the scholarly resources available to students and faculty both locally and within our Ivy Plus, BorrowDirect, and other interlibrary loan networks.

Over the years, Columbia Libraries have benefited greatly from advice provided by faculty and student groups. We are pleased in this regard to note the appointment in 2016 of a new faculty group—the Provost's Advisory Committee on the Libraries (PACL). They have already provided us with helpful insight on a number of complex issues.

The ongoing history of Columbia University Libraries’ collections is deeply embedded in the ongoing history of the University itself. The extent of the collections to which Columbia researchers have access has been cumulatively expanding since the days of King’s College, with an especially dramatic increase beginning in the late 1990s. Collections have grown, and continue to grow, through decisions made and work done by librarians and library staff; support from the University; insights and advice from Columbia faculty and students; gifts from donors; and cooperation with partner institutions.


Further information

Information on Columbia University Libraries’ distinctive collections is available at:

Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library

Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary

Digital Collections

Global Studies

Rare Book & Manuscript Library

C.V. Starr East Asian Library

This history was compiled in June 2018 by John L. Tofanelli, Librarian  for British & American History & Literature, updating an earlier "History of Collections" that, in its turn, had been derived from a 1984 “Guide” written by Barbara Ann Chernow. The present history includes augmentations and revisions based on additional research and new thinking. Significant assistance was received from Jane Siegel, Rare Book Librarian, and Paula A. Gabbard, Fine Arts Librarian and is gratefully acknowledged. 



Chernow, Barbara Ann. Guide to the Research Collections of the Columbia University Libraries. [New York : The University], c1984.

Columbia University. Libraries. Columbia Library Columns.

Columbia University. Libraries. Columbia Spectator Archive.

Columbia University. Libraries. Preliminary Scheme for the Relation between Columbia University Library and The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, in the Matter of the Development of the Libraries and the Purchase of Books. [New York] 1896.

Columbia University. Libraries. The Record Archive.

Columbia University. Libraries. Report of the University Librarian : July 1, 1972-Dec. 31, 1977. New York : The University, 1978.

Columbia University. Libraries. Strategic Directions.

Columbia University. President's Committee on the Educational Future of the University. Subcommittee on the University Libraries. The Columbia University Libraries; a Report on Present and Future Needs. Preliminary ed. New York, 1957.

"History of the Collections" in Columbia University. Libraries. Resources Group. Collection Development Policy Statement.  New York, N. Y. : The Libraries, 1988, I 2 - I 8. This “History” was also published as a standalone Web page, "History of Collections."

Jewels in her Crown : Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections (New York, NY : Rare Book & Manuscripts Library, Columbia University Libraries, c2004).

Johnston, W. Dawson. “The Library Resources of New York City and their Increase.” The Libraries of Columbia University : Reprinted from The Columbia University Quarterly March, 1911. [New York, 1911], pp. 163-172. HathiTrust Digital Library, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044019302413

Linderman, Winifred B. History of the Columbia University Library, 1876-1926. [New York] 1959.

McCaughey, Robert A. Stand, Columbia : a History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754-2004. New York : Columbia University Press, c2003.