African Studies (Sub-Saharan Africa)

This document outlines the Libraries’ general policies regarding collecting materials on “Sub-Saharan” Africa, but it is not intended to be a rigid set of rules; suggestions from faculty and students are always welcome.  [See Section 3, Part f. “Geographical Focus” for explanation.]

African studies research and teaching at Columbia has always been located across the disciplines in various academic departments.  During the 1950s, Columbia University was already considered an important site for research and teaching about Africa and its Africana collection was among the larger university-based library collections in the United States. Since then, at each stage in the development of African studies at Columbia, the Libraries has adjusted its acquisition activities and public services in response to the expressed needs of faculty and students.

In 1957, Barnard College (BC) was the venue for the founding of the African Studies Association of the United States.  In 1961, when a “Program of Studies on Africa” was launched at Columbia, the Libraries began to substantially increase its Africana acquisitions to support research and teaching about Africa. In 1965, after the Institute of African Studies (IAS), a language and area center with affiliated faculty and research associates, was established within the graduate School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), a part-time, Africana bibliographer position was created to manage library acquisitions on “Sub-Saharan” Africa.

Since 1993, a full-time African Studies Librarian position has overseen a greatly expanded acquisition and public service program to reflect a broadening and deepening of activities around Africa on campus. Between 1993 and 2000, there was an expansion of affiliated faculty, African language and other course offerings, on-campus public programming, and off-campus outreach at the Institute of African Studies supported by a Title VI federal national resource center grant.  During the 1990s, a greater emphasis on Francophone West Africa among Africana faculty across several disciplines, plus the launch of a Francophone studies concentration in the Department of French and Romance Philology, was supported at Columbia by an increased attention to acquiring French language publications from and about Africa. At the same time, research, teaching, and library acquisitions on East and Southern Africa remained strong at Columbia.

At Barnard College, an interdisciplinary Department of Africana Studies was formed in 1992, with affiliated faculty appointments and academic programming for the study of the African diaspora and Africa. Also, in 1993, the Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) was established at Columbia, which included some Africa-related research and teaching.  These developments coincided with a wider trend in the United States of a deepening interest in the history of peoples of African descent in the Americas and Western Europe and their relations to Africa. Columbia University Libraries supported this trend in its acquisitions in all formats.

In 2007, the Institute of African Studies became an independent unit outside of SIPA within the Arts and Sciences, while a new Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) was formed resulting in a consolidation of and further increases in faculty appointments and course offerings on Africa with a heightened focus on interdisciplinary approaches. In particular, new comparative studies at Columbia on Islam in Africa and Africa’s historic and contemporary connections with the Middle East, South Asia, and across the Sahara and the Indian Ocean region required the Libraries to bolster its holdings in these subject areas.  

In early 2019, a new Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies (AAADS) was created.  This new department has incorporated the faculty at IRAAS and promises to bring in new faculty and course offerings on campus for African diaspora studies. It is thus expected the demand for Africa-related and African diaspora library resources will continue to increase.

a. Undergraduate

Columbia College (CC), Barnard College (BC), or General Studies (GS) students in various academic departments with a major, minor, or concentration on Africa; students working on an independent junior or senior thesis on an Africa-related topic; or CC, BC, GS, and School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) students enrolled in a course with Africa-related content.

b. Graduate and Professional Schools

MA, MS, and PhD students with an interest in Africa in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), including those in the Departments of African American and African Diaspora Studies; Anthropology; Art History and Archeology; Economics; English and Comparative Literature; French and Romance Philology; History; Latin American and Iberian Cultures; Portuguese Studies; Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies; Music; Philosophy; Political Science; Religion; and Sociology, as well as those in the Schools of International and Public Affairs, Business, Public Health, and Social Work. In addition, the Libraries serves affiliated students and faculty from Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College (Department of International and Transcultural Studies).

c. Institutes, Interdisciplinary Programs, etc.

The Institute of African Studies is a central forum and resource for Africa-centered academic programs and research at Columbia University. The Libraries serve the needs of around sixty faculty members across the disciplines affiliated with this Institute. Other interdisciplinary programs which promote a significant research interest in Africa include: the Institute for the Study of Human Rights; the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network; the International Research Institute for Climate and Society; the Columbia Water Center; the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development; the Institute for Research in African-American Studies; the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality; the Heyman Center for the Humanities; the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; the Center for African Education; and the Program for International and Comparative Education at Teachers College.

d. Course Reserves

Selection for course reserves is up to individual faculty members. The Librarian will do whatever is possible to secure specific materials absent from the collection.

a. Print

The Libraries extensively collects print materials in all formats about and from Africa in the fields of: anthropology; architecture; economics; education; environmental studies; film studies; fine arts; geography; geoscience; history; human rights and other aspects of law and society; linguistics; literature; music; performing arts; philosophy; political science, especially the study of conflict, democracy, elections, peace-building, religious and social movements, terrorism, and war; public health and other sociomedical sciences; religion; sociology; and urban planning. The Libraries selectively collects publications on Africa-related subjects in animal, plant, medical, and physical sciences. Agricultural science, animal husbandry, and forestry are generally excluded, except for agricultural statistics for selected countries and works on agricultural development policy. Juvenile literature about and from Africa is also generally excluded, except for selected titles in African languages currently taught up to the advanced level at Columbia, such as Pulaar, Swahili, and Wolof.

All imprints from “Sub-Saharan” Africa and most works about “Sub-Saharan” Africa published outside of Africa (non-African imprints) are acquired primarily by the African Studies Librarian. Non-African imprints on fine arts, architecture, and urban planning in Africa are acquired primarily by the Fine Arts Bibliographer and the Architecture Bibliographer for Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library.

Most of the African studies print collections are found in the Butler Library General Stacks and Milstein Undergraduate Library, Lehman Social Sciences Library, the Thomas J. Watson Business & Economics Library, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, the Gabe M. Wiener Music & Arts Library, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Social Work Library, and the Libraries’ off-site storage facility (ReCAP).

b. Digital Collections

The Libraries subscribes to several hundred Africa-related electronic journal titles, routinely acquires selected electronic book titles in Africana, and licenses many data sets with partial Africa content that are of use to the research interests of users. The Libraries has also acquired or subscribes to a wide range of Africa-related electronic resources, including Africa-Wide Information (a comprehensive index, with electronic links to full-text); (African electronic newspaper articles since 1996); World Newspaper Archive-African Newspapers (digitized newspapers from the 19th and early 20th centuries); African Blue Books, 1821--1953 (National Archives, United Kingdom); ALUKA-Struggles for Freedom in Southern Africa; Annual Departmental Reports Relating to Nigeria and the British Cameroons, 1887--1962 (National Archives, United Kingdom); Apartheid South Africa, 1948--1980 (National Archives, United Kingdom); Archives of the Church of Uganda Online, 1882--1980s; Black Drama; Black Short Fiction and Folklore; Black Studies Center; Black Women Writers; Colonial Law in Africa: African Government Gazettes, 1808--1945; South African Government Gazettes, 1910--1993 and 1994--Present; Confidential Print: Africa, 1834--1966 (National Archives, United Kingdom); Literature Online-African Writers; 19th Century Collections--Europe and Africa; and Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive.

Since 1997, the African Studies Librarian maintains African Studies Internet Resources (WWW Virtual Library for African Studies), an internationally-recognized, comprehensive library of annotated web links to current research and historical information about and from Africa available on the Internet.

Since 2008, Columbia University Libraries’ Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research sponsors the Human Rights Web Archive, a searchable collection of archived copies of human rights websites created by non-governmental organizations, national human rights institutions, tribunals and individuals. A significant portion of the content for this ongoing born-digital project is Africa-related.

c. Media

Feature films and documentaries from or about Africa are currently available on DVD and VHS in the Butler Media Collections. Film and sound recordings on CD or DVD are selectively acquired for the Music & Arts Library, Butler Library, and ReCAP. Spoken word recordings are only occasionally acquired. Most of the media collections about and from Africa are routinely acquired by the African Studies Librarian, but many titles are also acquired by the Librarian for Butler Media, Film Studies & Performing Arts who is primarily responsible for collecting media in general. Columbia owns or subscribes to large online media collections with significant Africa-related content, such as Anthropology Collection; Docuseek 2; Filmmakers Library; and Films on Demand—World Cinema Video Collection. Streaming media titles are selectively acquired or leased and made available on course reserves based on faculty requests and affordability.

d. Languages Collected

Materials from and about “Sub-Saharan” Africa collected are mostly in English, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian. The largest number of print publications in African languages held by the Libraries are in Arabic, Swahili, Hausa, Zulu, and Afrikaans. Since the 1990s, print materials in Arabic, Swahili, Fula/Pulaar, Wolof, and Zulu have been and continue to be extensively acquired and usually for on-campus library locations. In recent years, publications in other African languages which are also collected include those in Bambara, Ganda, Mandinka, Ndebele, Shona, Somali, Xhosa, and Yoruba. With some exceptions, titles in these languages are acquired for ReCAP.

e. Chronological Focus

The Libraries’ acquisition activities emphasize support for current research and teaching at Columbia on Africa from the 18th century to the present, with special attention to the colonial and post-colonial eras. Publications about earlier periods in Africa’s past are also acquired.

f. Geographical Focus

The Libraries collects materials in all formats about and from the Africa region. Materials about and from northern Africa, including the countries of Egypt, Mauritania, Sudan, and the Maghreb countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Western Sahara are selected primarily by the Middle East & Islamic Studies Librarian. Materials about and from all other territories in the Africa region, including Madagascar and the other western Indian Ocean islands, are selected primarily by the African Studies Librarian and covered in this collection policy statement for African Studies (Sub-Saharan Africa).

g. Imprint Dates Collected

Most routine collecting involves current and recent (+/- three years) imprints. When antiquarian acquisitions are offered via gift or purchase, no specific chronological ranges are established in advance; rare or unique materials from any period may be considered.

Columbia University Libraries selectively collects rare books, periodicals, and archival materials relating to Africa and are held mostly by the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML). The most significant, accessible archival collections to date are those relating to human rights in Africa, which are associated with the Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research, such as: Gay J. MacDougall South African and Namibia Papers, 1932--2006; Committee for Health in Southern Africa Records, 1985--1991; and Human Rights Watch--Africa Watch Records, 1989--1995.  Other important accessible archival collections with significant Africa-related content include: Ford Foundation International Fellows Program Records, 2000--2013; Carnegie Corporation of New York Records; Max J. and Ruth Clement Bond Papers; and the Missionary Research Library Archives at the Burke Library. Three recent Africana acquisitions of note at Columbia--George C. Bond Papers, Sylvia Boone Papers, and Marc and Evelyn Bernheim Photograph Collection--are currently in process.

The Libraries seeks to support research in the literary, artistic, and cinematic aspects of graphic novels and selected comics, including those from Africa or which feature “African” or “black” characters.  Most contemporary African comics and graphic literature, whether political or more broadly cultural, are kept in the general circulating collections at Butler Library, Lehman Social Sciences Library, and ReCAP.  In recent years, rare historical comic series with “African” or “black” characters, particularly those from Western Europe, were acquired and cataloged by title for the non-circulating collections in RBML.

The Libraries selectively acquires new materials for a non-circulating collection in support of advanced research on the Africa region (including North Africa) and the African diaspora in the African Studies Reading Room (607 Butler Library). The room first opened in late 2003. The collection includes new books and periodicals, as well as many older items transferred from other library locations. Most titles in the room are added copies of items available in the circulating collections. Currently, new acquisitions and transfers continue to be made. Most of the publications held in the room are in English, French, Portuguese, and a representative sample of major African languages. This special print collection features reference titles; works of African fiction, poetry, drama, and literary criticism; reprinted historical documents; ethnography and folklore; written transcriptions of oral history; works on the arts in Africa; and publications on the history and politics of Africa and of the African diasporas' engagement with Africa.

The African Studies Librarian also collaborates with RBML and the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary to identify and acquire rare special collections relating to Africa.  Please see also RBML’s “What We Collect” page for other details on overall collection strengths and scope.

a. Consortia and Collaborative Collecting with Other Institutions

Columbia’s print collections on Africa is greatly enhanced by the university’s participation in several consortia: a shared off-site storage facility (ReCAP) with Harvard University, Princeton University, and The New York Public Library; Borrow Direct; and the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), a partnership with New York University and The New York Public Library. Rare Africana materials on microform and some digital formats not acquired directly by Columbia are also available via Interlibrary Loan (ILL) through Columbia’s ongoing full institutional membership in the Center for Research Libraries and its Cooperative Africana Materials Project (CAMP).

b. Location Decisions and Selection for ReCAP

Most current publications (+/- three years) on Africa are acquired directly for locations on campus. After a specified period of non-circulation (currently five years) titles become identified for transfer to ReCAP. The Librarian reviews lists of ReCAP candidates or the items themselves, exercising the ability to override automatic transfer of any given title to ReCAP. Review is done with the sim of maintaining a reasonable onsite browsing collection. Older titles are also identified as candidates for transfer to ReCAP through the same criterion of circulation activity. These transfer lists or the items themselves are reviewed by the Librarian with the aim of retaining onsite significant works of known ongoing importance.  

Multimedia materials on a variety of subjects (books with CDs or DVDs) or national statistical titles on CD are routinely acquired for ReCAP to protect optimum physical condition.

Duplication of recent titles (+/- ten years) is limited to works identified by faculty as being central to a specific course. In these cases, no more than a few copies are obtained, one of which should be placed by the faculty member on reserve. Duplication between titles in the African Studies Reading Room and other library locations is allowable since the reading room holds a non-circulating collection in support of advanced research on Africa. Works in high demand that are unavailable in electronic book format may also be considered for duplication in print.

Deduplication only takes place when a title has been identified for relocation to ReCAP and a copy already exists on shelf in the shared collection at that facility. Even in this instance, the Librarian will inspect the local copy for any unique features/unusual provenance before assenting to deduplication.

c. Deaccessioning

Titles are deaccessioned only in cases where the physical copy is disintegrating and no longer serviceable.  In these instances, the librarian will evaluate whether to make a preservation photocopy, create or acquire a digital surrogate, and/or replace the physical copy with another.  Distinctive collections held in Avery Library, the Burke Library, C.V. Starr East Asian Library, and RBML are not deaccessioned.

d. Digitization and Preservation

The Libraries’ Preservation & Digital Conversion Division (PDCD) regularly evaluates materials in the collections for preservation and digitization.  Materials digitized by PDCD are accessible through CLIO and are also made accessible through Google Books or the Internet Archive.

Yuusuf Caruso

Yuusuf Caruso

African Studies Librarian

  • Global Studies

(212) 854-8045
Global Studies - 309 International Affairs
Peter Magierski

Peter Magierski

Middle East & Islamic Studies Librarian

  • Global Studies

(212) 854-3995
Global Studies - 309 International Affairs
Jane Siegel

Jane Siegel

Rare Book Librarian

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library

(212) 854-8482
Butler Library - 6th Floor East Butler Library

Last updated: February 2019