History of Science

This document outlines the Libraries’ general policy on history of science and technology collecting but it is not intended to be a rigid set of rules; suggestions from students and faculty are welcome. The Libraries’ collections support research at all levels on various areas in the worldwide history of science and technology, including cosmology, the foundations of mathematics, the Scientific Revolution, chemistry and alchemy, origins and species before and after Darwin, the molecular revolution in biology, science during the Enlightenment, Arabic and Asian histories of science and medicine, and the history of computing and information technology. 

Columbia has been collecting in the history of science and technology since its founding in the 18th century. An 1818 purchase of new books for the burgeoning library included Herman Boerhaave’s Elementa Chemiae (first published in 1732), Anna Seward’s Memoirs of Dr. Darwin (first published in 1804), and works by the English zoologist Thomas Martyn. A major early purchase in the sciences was Columbia’s subscription to the “elephant folio” edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, published from 1827 to 1838, Columbia being one of only three American educational institutions to subscribe for the work. 

Particular strengths in history of science and technology can be found in the Mathematics Library, which houses some 75,000 volumes, including older scientific periodicals and publications of academies and learned societies, as well as in the archival and special collections of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) and the Health Sciences Library. Please refer to section 3h of this policy for a detailed overview of the RBML and Health Sciences special collections. 

a. Undergraduate

Department of History majors and minors; Columbia College (CC), School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), and General Studies (GS) students enrolled in Frontiers of Science courses; students enrolled in interdisciplinary history and philosophy of science courses, i.e. Social History of American Public Health and Medicine & Western Civilization.

b. Graduate and Professional Schools

MA and PhD students in the Department of History; MPH, MS, MHA, DPH, PhD, and DPH students in the Mailman School of Public Health; MSW and PhD students in the School of Social Work; the Julius Silver Program in Law, Science, & Technology at Columbia Law School; the MD-PhD dual degree program in the College of Physicians & Surgeons; MS and MA science concentration in the Columbia Journalism School.

c. Institutes, Interdisciplinary Programs, etc.

Center for Science and Society; Heyman Center for the Humanities; University Seminar in the History and Philosophy of Science; Metropolitan New York History of Science Society Section (of which Columbia is a member); Data Science Institute; Making and Knowing Project.

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 

English-language critical scholarship published by academic presses remains on site in the Butler Library stacks. Critical editions and English translations of significant scientific texts or treatises also remain on site in the Butler stacks. Secondary scholarship in European languages is sent to ReCAP while scholarship in non-Western languages is collected by Global Studies librarians. Major reference works, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks, are kept on site in the Butler Library reference collection located rooms 301 and 310. 

b. Digital Collections

Columbia University Libraries offers an extensive variety of electronic resources. In terms of commercially available databases, Columbia researchers can access History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, the New York Academy of Sciences digital archives, the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland digital archives, Early English Books Online, Early European Books Online, Defining Gender, 1450--1910, the Encyclopedia of Evolution, and many others, featuring thousands of e-books and hundreds of e-journal subscriptions. These electronic resources complement the print collections and substantially enhance the range of history of science and technology content available to researchers at Columbia. Datasets and websites are not currently collected but suggestions from researchers are welcome. 

Columbia University Libraries has also digitized many rare and unique special collections items relating to the history of science and technology. Highlights include the medieval Mechelen Hospital Archive and nearly 1,400 photographs (and a few illustrations) from the Community Service Society Records, offering representations of urban poverty, unsafe tenement conditions, inadequate hygiene in public areas, and other social issues in New York from the 1880s through the 1950s. Many of Columbia’s most precious medieval and Renaissance manuscripts are publicly available in Digital Scriptorium, including a number of manuscripts of Euclid dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries. 

c. Media

Nearly 400 videos on the history of science and technology, primarily documentaries on DVD and VHS, are available in the Butler Media Collection

d. Languages Collected

English is the primary language of collection, although German, French, Italian, and Spanish are also frequently collected. Materials in non-Western languages are acquired by Global Studies librarians. 

e. Chronological Focus

Antiquity to the present day.

f. Geographical Focus


g. Imprint Dates Collected

The main focus of collecting is current and recent (+/- five 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.  

Mathematician and Teachers College faculty member David Eugene Smith (1860--1944) bequeathed his collection of 13,000 volumes (plus manuscripts, historical documents, and scientific instruments) relating to the history of science and mathematics to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 1931. The date range of the Smith collection is the 11th through the early 20th centuries, while the geographic range is global, with particular strength in the Islamic world. Some highlights include principal editions of Euclid, Galileo, and Newton (including volumes from Sir Isaac Newton’s personal library), manuscripts by Voltaire and Albert Einstein, as well as 275 mathematical instruments such as sundials and astrolabes, and nearly 140 boxes of Smith’s own professional papers. In 1936, Smith’s friend and fellow bibliophile, George Arthur Plimpton, presented his comprehensive collection relating to the history of education to Columbia. The Plimpton collection includes the cuneiform tablet known as “Plimpton 322,” created around 1800 BCE and representing a significant mathematical achievement relating to Pythagorean triples. Thanks to the Smith and Plimpton collections, RBML holds one of the world’s major resources in the history of mathematics and astronomy. 

Other noteworthy collections include the papers of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the United States, and the papers of chemist Charles Frederick Chandler, physicists Michael Pupin, George Pegram, and Chien-Shiung Wu, neuroscientist Eric R. Kandel, and inventors Edwin H. Armstrong and Earl I. Sponable. More on the collecting focus of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library can be found here

The Health Sciences Library, located at the Columbia University Medical Center, serves as the archives for the College of Physicians & Surgeons (founded in 1767), the School of Nursing (founded in 1892), the College of Dental Medicine (formerly the School of Dental & Oral Surgery, founded in 1916), the Mailman School of Public Health (founded in 1922), and also maintains some records from the defunct College of Pharmaceutical Sciences (founded in 1829 as the College of Pharmacy). The Health Sciences Library houses a 27,000-volume rare book library in the history of the health sciences dating from the 15th to the 20th century and preserves the library's serials printed before 1876 and books printed through 1922. Other outstanding collections include the Auchincloss Florence Nightingale Collection, the Freud Library, the Hyman Collection in the History of Anesthesiology, and the Webster Library of Plastic Surgery.

a. Consortia and Collaborative Collecting with Other Institutions

The range of print materials focusing on history of science and technology is greatly enhanced by Columbia’s participation in Borrow Direct, OCLC’s SHARES network of international academic libraries, and the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), a partnership with New York University and The New York Public Library. MaRLI also enables Columbia to expand its electronic access to e-journals and e-books through cooperative subscription and purchase agreements with major vendors.

b. Location Decisions and Selection for ReCAP

Most critical scholarship in European languages is sent directly to ReCAP. English-language scholarship, critical editions of scientific texts and treatises, and English translations of scientific literature remain on site in the Butler Library stacks. 

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 copy that could potentially be withdrawn 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

As needed, titles in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library and in the circulating collections are evaluated by staff of the Libraries’ Preservation & Digital Conversion Division (PDCD). 

Meredith J. Levin

Meredith J. Levin

Western European Humanities Librarian

  • Humanities & History


(212) 854-5802
Butler Library - 309 l Butler Library
Jennifer B. Lee

Jennifer B. Lee

Curator for Performing Arts

  • Rare Book & Manuscript Library


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


Head, Archives & Special Collections

Health Sciences Library



Last updated: January 2019