English Language & Literature


This document outlines the Libraries’ general policy on collections for English language and literature, but it is not intended to be a rigid set of rules. Collection suggestions from students and faculty are welcome.

Columbia University Libraries supports research in the historical, literary, and cultural aspects of English language and literature, from Old English (ca. 449 C.E.) through the present day. Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States are primary areas of geographical focus. English literature from many regions of the world with significant traditions of English-language authorship is also collected. Postcolonial literature in English is a collecting area of special interest. Collection suggestions from students, faculty, and researchers are welcome.

The study of English literature at Columbia began in the late 18th century under the rubric of “Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.” The scope of what has been understood and studied as “English literature” at Columbia University has broadened and shifted over the decades, diversifying and expanding most dramatically within the last sixty years. 

Columbia University Libraries’ collecting scope for literature in English reflects those diversified interests and is broadly inclusive, with an attentiveness to authors from a wide range of racial, ethnic, national, gender, and sexual identities. To strengthen our collections of works by underrepresented voices from past historical eras, we have acquired databases providing access to full text digital facsimiles from distinctive collections of such works. For example, Perdita Manuscripts: Women Writers, 1500--1700 represents early modern women authors who were “lost” because their writing exists only in manuscript form and Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535--1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia includes hundreds of early works by authors of African or African American descent. Bringing things up to the present, Alexander Street Literature covers literatures of place, race, and gender with an emphasis on currently-active authors writing in a wide range of world regions.  

Columbia University Libraries’ own distinctive and special collections include strengths in 18th-century belles lettres, the novel, fine press, and artist books, 20th-century small press production, African-American literature of the 20th century, the Beats, and contemporary poetry.  Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) also houses one of the country's premier collections of publishers' archives, including the archives of publishing companies, literary journals, literary agencies, and other organizations, as well as the papers of editors, publishers, and literary agents.

Major online corpora for the contextual study of English language and literature include Early English Books Online, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, Nineteenth-Century Collections Online, and America's Historical Imprints. These massively-extensive collections of full text digital facsimiles not only provide sweeping access to traditional belles lettres but are also broadly representative of the published output of specific time periods and regions, including political, religious, philosophical, and scientific texts--all of which provide contexts for understanding more traditionally literary texts or may themselves be subjected to methods of literary analysis.  

a. Undergraduate

Department of English and Comparative Literature majors and minors; Columbia College (CC), School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and General Studies (GS) students enrolled in the Literature Humanities and/or Contemporary Civilization courses in the Core Curriculum; students majoring in or concentrating in comparative literature and society.

b. Graduate & Professional Schools

Department of English and Comparative Literature MA and PhD students; PhD students affiliated with the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society; MFA students in the School of the Arts; MA and PhD students in the Department of History.

c. Institutes, Interdisciplinary Programs, etc.

Center for American Studies; Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race; Heyman Center for the Humanities; Institute for Comparative Literature and Society; Institute for Research in African-American Studies; Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.

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

Contemporary works from Britain, Ireland, and the United States that aspire to the status of serious literature are broadly collected. Popular literature is collected more selectively. The literary output of a substantial number of small and independent United States presses is received by the Libraries from Small Press Distribution, which also provides coverage of a much narrower range of British, Irish, and Canadian small presses. Literature in English from Canada is selectively collected in general. For Francophone Canadian literature, SEE: French Language and Literature. Contemporary and 20th-century drama in English is collected by the Librarian for Butler Media, Film Studies, & Performing Arts. SEE: Theatre and Dance.

Older literary works of recognized significance are collected in critical editions (for example, titles in the Oxford Clarendon series, or the Pickering & Chatto edition of The Works of Mary Wollstonecraft); in educational editions, in which the emphasis is simply on reprinting an already published version of the text supplemented by explanatory notes and contextual documents (for example, Bedford Cultural Editions); and in facsimile reprints or ordinary reprints. In terms of the older collections that the Libraries maintain, editions in which the author was known to be involved in establishing, revising, or arranging the texts are valued (for example, the Outward Bound edition [1897--1937] of the works of Rudyard Kipling) as are other editions that represent significant moments in the textual or reception history of a work. Many older editions of literary works are maintained at the Libraries’ off-site storage facility (ReCAP). Keeping critical, educational, and historically significant editions on site in the Butler Library stacks is a priority. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) has extensive collections of early editions of literary works. 

The bulk of materials relating to English language and literature is held in Butler Library and/or ReCAP. The American History & Literature Reading Room (502 Butler Library) provide consistent access to a core body of non-circulating materials supporting advanced research in U.S. literature. 

b. Digital Collections

Major online corpora supporting the study of English language and literature include: Literature Online; Early English Books Online; Eighteenth-Century Collections Online; Nineteenth-Century Collections Online; and America’s Historical Imprints. Major resources for accessing literary works as disseminated through the periodical press include American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals Collection and Periodicals Archive Online. Alexander Street Literature presents literatures of place, race, and gender in English and in other languages of authorship, through modules such as Black Women Writers: African, African American, and Diaspora and Caribbean Literature. A wide range of English-language works are presented in critical editions in Past Masters.

c. Media

Thousands of English-language videos (primarily feature films and documentaries) on DVD and VHS, are available in the Butler Media Collection. The Librarian for Butler Media, Film Studies, & Performing Arts is primarily responsible for collecting English materials in these areas. Streaming video performances of English-language drama may be found in: Digital Theatre Plus, and Theatre in Video.

The Music & Arts Library maintains impressive collections of audio recordings of works by British and American composers as well as scholarship about them.

d. Languages Collected

English, Old English, and Middle English. Irish, Scots, and Welsh are collected for selected authors whose works have been published in those languages. Secondary literature is not systematically collected in languages other than English.

e. Chronological Focus

Old English (ca. 449 C.E.) through the present day.

f. Geographical Focus

Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, and Canada. English-language literature for Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, Latin America, the Middle East, New Zealand, South and Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific are collected by relevant Global Studies librarians.

g. Imprint Dates Collected

The main focus of collecting is 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.  

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) collects poetry and fiction, with an emphasis on literary translation and the diffusion of genres and movements (i.e. Romanticism) from the 18th century to the present (and earlier as opportunities present themselves). Book collecting emphasizes the current teaching and research needs of the Columbia campus and builds on collection strengths in 18th-century belles lettres, the novel, fine press and artist books, and 20th-century small press production. Other strengths include “obscene” or erotic literature, poetry between the World Wars, the European realist novel, the Beats, African -American literature of the 20th century, and contemporary poetry. An effort is made to collect contemporary trade publishing that has significant artifactual value, such as a strong graphic or typographic element, unusual format, or intermedia component.

RBML houses one of the country's premier collections of publishers' archives, including the archives of publishing companies, literary journals, literary agencies, and other organizations, as well as the papers of editors, publishers, and literary agents. Because New York City is the center of the nation's publishing industry, RBML has focused on the local scene but has also expanded beyond where relevant or opportune.

Please see RBML’s “What We Collect” page, specifically the “Literature & Publishing” segment, for further details.

a. Consortia and Collaborative Collecting with Other Institutions

The range of print materials focusing on the subject field of English language and literature is greatly enhanced by Columbia’s participation, with Harvard University, Princeton University, and The New York Public Library, in a shared off-site storage facility (ReCAP); Borrow Direct; and the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), a partnership with New York University and The New York Public Library. 

b. Selection for ReCAP

Most current publications (+/- three years) for British, Irish, U.S., and Canadian literature are sent directly to the Butler stacks. After a specified period of non-circulation (currently five years) titles become identified as candidates for transfer to ReCAP. The Librarian reviews lists of ReCAP candidates, exercising the ability to override proposed transfer of any given title to ReCAP. Review is done with the aim of maintaining a reasonable on-site browsing collection. Older titles in the Butler stacks are also identified as candidates for transfer to ReCAP through the same criterion of circulation inactivity. These transfer lists are also reviewed by the Librarian. With older titles, keeping critical, educational, and historically significant editions of primary texts on site in the Butler stacks is a priority. 

Duplication of recent publications is generally 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 American History & Literature Reading Room (502 Butler Library) and other Columbia University Libraries locations is allowable since the reading room houses a non-circulating collection, which is maintained to provide consistent access to a core body of materials supporting advanced research in these areas. Works in demonstrated high demand that are unavailable in e-book format may also be considered for duplication in print.

De-duplication 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 de-duplication. Furthermore, editions that can reasonably be understood to have played a significant role in the textual or reception history of a work will be carefully reviewed by Librarian, with a view towards retaining them on site in the Butler stacks.

c. Deaccessioning

Titles are deaccessioned only in cases where the physical copy is disintegrating and no longer serviceable in print format. In these instances, either a preservation photocopy is made, or a digital surrogate created or obtained. Books located in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library 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, the Libraries’ online catalog, and are also made accessible through Google Books or the Internet Archive. 

For the online collection Judging a Book by its Cover, RBML digitized over two hundred examples of decorated book covers from its collections, primarily for British or American literary books published from the 19th through early 20th centuries. This provides a wonderful example of the ways in which digital presentation can enhance our understanding of the material qualities that condition our perceptions of literary works.

John L. Tofanelli

John L. Tofanelli

Research Collections & Services Librarian

  • Humanities & History

jt628@columbia.edu

(212) 854-4356
Butler Library - 309 Butler Library
Jane Siegel

Jane Siegel

Rare Book Librarian

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library

jrs19@columbia.edu

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

Jenny Lee

Curator for Performing Arts

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library

jbl100@columbia.edu

(212) 854-4048
Butler Library - 6th Floor East Butler Library

Last updated: January 2019