History of Christianity and Christian Theology

The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary holds a collection that dates to the founding of Union Theological Seminary in 1838. As its collections have grown, their scope and focus have reflected the research and educational mission of Union Theological Seminary and, since 2004, of Columbia University, in the areas of the history of Christianity and Christian theology (historical, systematic, and practical). Additional areas of distinction came to include sacred music (including thousands of hymnals and the theses of Union Seminary’s former School of Sacred Music, now at Yale Divinity School), the history of American Protestantism, religious education, as well as rare periodicals from the United States, Europe, and Asia. 

In general, the collections are distinguished for their holdings in the areas of Reformation post-Reformation Protestantism and in 19th- and 20th-century ecumenical and progressive Christianity. They reflect the cultural and intellectual developments in which Union Theological Seminary played an instrumental role, including the rise of 19th-century liberal theology, the neo-orthodox moment of the mid-20th century, the post-1960s flowering of liberation, black, womanist, Latinx, LGBTQ, and green theologies (among others), and, more recently, interreligious engagement and the study and documentation of the global religions of New York City.

The Burke Library’s collections reflect the mission, curricula, and research of Union Theological Seminary and undergraduate and graduate curricula and research of Columbia University, Barnard College, and affiliate institutions. It also supports the scholarship of faculty and non-affiliated researchers from the United States and around the world.

This document outlines the Libraries’ general policy on collections for the history of Christianity and Christian theology but it is not intended to be a rigid set of rules; collection suggestions from students and faculty are welcome.

a. Undergraduate

The Columbia University Libraries supports Columbia College (CC), School of General Studies (GS), and Barnard College (BC) undergraduate majors and minors in the following departments: art history and archaeology; classics; English and comparative literature; history; Italian; Latin American and Iberian cultures; music; philosophy; religion; and various area studies programs. The collection also supports CC, GS, and School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) students enrolled in Core Curriculum classes.

b. Graduate and Professional Schools

In addition to its support for undergraduate instruction, Columbia University Libraries supports Union Theological Seminary MDiv, MA, STM, and PhD students; MA and PhD students in Columbia’s Departments of Religion, History, Philosophy, English and Comparative Literature; and MSW and PhD students in the School of Social Work.

c. Institutes, Interdisciplinary Programs, etc.

Columbia University Libraries supports Union Theological Seminary programs; the Institute for Religion Culture and Public Life (IRCPL); the Heyman Center for the Humanities; the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean; the Program in Medieval & Renaissance Studies; and the Program in Classical Studies.

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

Current editions of monographic, serial, annual, and reference publications and, more selectively other formats (maps, dissertations, newspapers), are collected primarily for the Burke Library and, in select cases, for Butler Library. Overall, the Burke Library's existing collections, its collecting goals, and its current acquisitions commitments for these areas, based upon available resources, attempt to be as comprehensive as possible.

b. Digital Collections

Columbia University Libraries purchases and provides access to a wide range of aggregated databases, electronic journals, and electronic primary source collections including: American Theological Library Association (ATLA) Religion Database with AtlaSerials PLUS; Index Religiosus; Catholic Periodical and Literature Index; Patrologia Latina; Patrologia Orientalis, Sacramentum Mundi Online; Acta Sanctorum; Vetus Latina (Bible versions of the Latin fathers); L'Année Philologique; Digital Library of the Catholic Reformation; Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts; Mirabile: Digital Archive for Medieval Latin Culture; Ut per Litteras Apostolicas (Papal Letters); Europa Sacra Online; Corpus dei Manoscritti Copti Letterari (Coptic Bibliography); Church Missionary Society Periodicals; World Council of Churches Online; African American Historical Serials Collection; Archives of the Church of Uganda Online; 1832-2006; and Archives of the Presbyterian Church of Cuba Online.

The Burke Library curates the New York City Religions Web Archive, which biannually captures and catalogs 700 websites documenting the city’s religious diversity. Key digital collections include the G.E.E. Lindquist Native American Photographs collection and the #LoveInAction project, which documents ongoing student activism at Union Theological Seminary and beyond. Its medieval and early modern manuscript holdings are included in the Digital Scriptorium.

c. Media

Media related to religious studies are collected based on faculty and student request. See also the extensive Butler Media Collection.

d. Languages Collected

All major modern European languages are represented in the collections, as are many important ancient languages. Particular strengths include primary source texts in Ancient Greek, Classical and medieval Latin, and secondary materials in English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish. Materials in other languages are collected based on specific faculty and student research needs.

e. Chronological Focus

The main focus of collecting is on 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.  

f. Geographical Focus

Columbia University Libraries collects materials from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

g. Imprint Dates Collected

Columbia University Libraries collects materials from the 16th century to the present, with a particular focus on 20th- and 21st-century global Christianity.

The Burke Library’s collecting dates to 1838 and the acquisition by founding Union Seminary faculty member Edward Robinson (for whom the earliest portion of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is named) of a significant portion of the library of German biblical scholar and former Benedictine monk Leander van Ess. The van Ess collection (another large portion of which was acquired by the Huntington Library) contained scores of manuscripts and thousands of early printed books and pamphlets, including several hundred incunabula.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the acquisition of both the McAlpin Collection of British History and Theology and the Gillett Collection of American History of Theology. The McAlpin Collection consists of more than 18,000 books and pamphlets from the 16th and 17th centuries and is among the most significant of its kind outside the UK. Particular strengths include the theological and political controversies conducted throughout the English Civil Wars and the debates surrounding the rise of Deism. The Gillett Collection contains thousands of North American tracts, pamphlets, and sermons dating from the late 18th to the early 20th century, including the context and consequences of the Second Great Awakening.

The Missionary Research Library (MRL), which began as an independent collection in the wake of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, became a part of the larger Burke Library collections in 1976. Containing archives and an extensive range of printed materials, the MRL collections document missionary, educational, relief, and medical work from around the globe.

Building on the historic and subject strengths noted above, the Burke Library continues to add to its special collections. Where funding and availability permit, areas for which new acquisitions are made include: American religious history, global Christianity and interreligious engagement, religious social justice activism, missionary publications and manuscripts, Western and non-Western manuscripts, and early printed books.

Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) also has extensive special collection holdings related to the study of Christianity and Christian theology. These include a large collection of Western medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and early printed books; the Ephrata Cloister Collection of 18th-century print and manuscript material; the Jeanne d’Arc Collection; and the papers and printed works of renowned 20th-century religious and theological figures such as Thomas Merton, John Howard Griffin, Robert Lax, Barry Ulanov, and M. Moran Weston, among others.

a. Consortia and Collaborative Collecting with Other Institutions

The range of available print materials--monographs, edited volumes, serials-- is significantly enhanced by Columbia’s participation in Borrow Direct and the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), a partnership with New York University and The New York Public Library.

b. Location Decisions and Selection for ReCAP

The majority of titles are selected for on-site locations, primarily the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary. Wherever possible, materials sent to ReCAP are works that circulate infrequently. A certain number of new acquisitions, primarily in Italian, French, or German, are sent off site. These works, while important for research and scholarly preservation, are deemed to be low-use items that do not need to take up valuable space in one of Columbia’s on-site libraries.

Duplication of titles 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.

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

c. Deaccessioning

Titles are generally deaccessioned only in cases where the physical copy is disintegrating and no longer serviceable in print/physical format. In these instances, the Librarian will evaluate whether to make a preservation photocopy, to create or acquire a digital surrogate, and/or whether to replace the physical copy with another. Resources on obsolete formats are reviewed by librarians on a case-by-case basis; in instances where the original format has artifactual value, it will be retained even after it has been digitized or otherwise reformatted. Distinctive collections held in RBML, Starr, Avery, and Burke are not deaccessioned.  

d. Digitization and Preservation

Titles in both Columbia’s circulating and special collections are evaluated by staff of the Libraries’ Preservation & Digital Conversion Division (PDCD) as needed.

Jeffrey Wayno

Jeffrey Wayno

Collection Services Librarian

  • The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary


(212) 851-5608
The Burke Library - Union Theological Seminary
Meredith J. Levin

Meredith J. Levin

Western European Humanities Librarian

  • Humanities & History


(212) 854-5802
Butler Library - 309 l Butler Library
Jane Siegel

Jane Siegel

Rare Book Librarian

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library


(212) 854-8482
Butler Library - 6th Floor East Butler Library
John L. Tofanelli

John L. Tofanelli

Research Collections & Services Librarian

  • Humanities & History


(212) 854-4356
Butler Library - 309 Butler Library
Sócrates Silva

Sócrates Silva

Latin American & Iberian Studies Librarian

  • Global Studies


(212) 854-1679
Global Studies - 309 International Affairs

Last updated: March 2019