The Burke Library Collection Development Policy

The Burke Library is one of the largest theological libraries in North America. With holdings of more than 700,000 items, including extensive collections of unique and special materials, it is recognized as one of the premier institutions in its field. The mission of the Burke Library is to identify, acquire, organize, interpret, provide access to, and preserve for the future information resources in the disciplines of theology, religious studies, and contextually-related areas of study. 

For much of its history, the Burke Library was known as the Library of Union Theological Seminary. In 1983 it was renamed in honor of Walter Burke, a generous benefactor who served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Seminary from 1976 to 1982. In 2004, the Burke Library became a member of Columbia University Libraries/Information Services.

The Burke Library’s collecting dates to 1838 and the acquisition by founding Union Seminary faculty member Edward Robinson of a significant portion of the library of German biblical scholar and former Benedictine monk Leander van Ess. The van Ess purchase contained scores of manuscripts and thousands of early printed books and pamphlets, including several hundred incunabula. Until the 20th century, it was among the largest and richest collections of its kind in North America.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the creation 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 noteworthy both for its breadth and depth. 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.

As the Burke Library’s collections have grown, their scope and focus have reflected its research and educational mission, acquiring a substantial range of materials in biblical studies, the history of Christianity, and theology (systematic, historical, and practical). Additional areas of distinction came to include sacred music (including hundreds of hymnals and the theses of Union Seminary’s former School of Sacred Music), the history of Christian Science, religious education, as well as a significant collection of periodicals from the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The Missionary Research Library (MRL), which began as an independent collection in the wake of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference, in 1976 became a part of the larger Burke Library collections. Containing archives and an extensive range of printed materials, the MRL collections document missionary, educational, relief, and medical work from around the globe.

In general, the collections are distinguished for their holdings in the areas of Reformation and 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, Latino/a, LGBTQ, and green theologies (among others), and, more recently, interreligious engagement and the study and documentation of the global religions of New York City.

Audience and Program Description
The Burke Library’s collections reflect the pluralistic and ecumenical concerns of Union Theological Seminary while maintaining its role as a comprehensive resource within the limits of its collecting policies. The Burke Library supports the undergraduate and graduate research and curricula of Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, New York Theological Seminary, and affiliate institutions in the areas of biblical studies, the history of Christianity, Christian theology and ethics, and related areas of the humanities and social sciences. It also supports the scholarship of faculty and non-affiliated researchers from the U.S. and around the world.

General Selection Guidelines
The following uses the RLG Conspectus for describing levels of collecting (i.e., comprehensive, research, instructional, basic, minimal). Overall, the Burke Library's existing collections, its collecting goals, and its current acquisitions commitments for these areas, based upon available resources, are all at the research level. The Burke Library has approval plans for English, German, Dutch, French, Italian, and Spanish language materials, through which it acquires all relevant university press and major trade press publications. It is the policy of Columbia University Libraries to avoid duplication of new acquisitions. The Burke Library collaborates in its collecting with other Columbia Libraries selectors in the areas of Ancient/Medieval History, Jewish Studies, and other Global Studies areas (African Studies; South & Southeast Asian Studies; Latin American and Iberian Studies; Russian, Eurasian & East European Studies). The Burke Library collects in the following areas, according to the Library of Congress Classification (LCC):

Ethics (BJ) – We collect in subclasses relevant to religious ethics (BJ 47, 1188-1297). Other areas of this class are collected by the philosophy selector.

Religions. Mythology. Rationalism. (BL) – We collect at a research level for general religion (e.g., the study of religion as a discipline) and comparative religion (e.g., thematic approaches to the study of religion from multiple religious perspectives). This includes most areas in subclasses BL 1-630, as well as selected subclasses not covered by Global Studies (e.g., Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, African Religions, etc.).

Judaism (BM) – Biblical Hebrew is the only subclass collected. The remainder of this class is handled by the Jewish Studies Librarian and available to Burke Library users at the relevant Columbia Libraries (e.g., Butler, Lehman).

Christianity (BR) – This class is collected at a research level in western languages.

Bible (BS) – Research level in western languages. We collect Hebrew Bible and language materials up to the Rabbinic period (i.e., approx. 200 C.E.).

Doctrinal Theology (BT) – We collect at research level in Western languages.

Practical Theology (BV) – We collect at research level for most subclasses.

Christian Denominations (BX) – We collect at research level for most subclasses.

Other areas collected at a research or instructional level include: religious societies (HS 1525); canon law (KBR, KBU);  religious education (LC107-128; 251-979); religious music (M 2010-2017; 2115-2199; 2900-3001, 3186; 3869; 3921); religious art (N 7790-8204; NA 4590-6209); and religious and theological bibliography (Z 695; 7770-7779).

Specific Delimitations            
1. Formats Collected: We collect monographs, periodicals, annuals, reference resources, and electronic resources (both reference and primary) extensively. We collect professional materials and dissertations selectively. (Additional access to U.S. and European dissertations is provided via ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global and via the Center for Research Libraries). Where possible, we prefer electronic format for periodicals, reference materials and, to a lesser extent, monographs.

2. Imprint Dates Collected: We collect materials from the 16th century to the present, with a particular focus on 20th and 21st century Christianities.

3. Languages Collected:  We collect English, German, French, and Italian language materials. Other languages are collected selectively.

4. Places of Publication: We collect materials from the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

December, 2015

For additional information, please see Columbia University Libraries/Information Services Collection Development Policies page.