Libraries Support for the Humanities at Columbia

The Columbia University Libraries is a leader among research libraries in supporting humanities research and teaching. Sustained historical investments have enabled the development of one of the broadest and deepest humanities research collections in North America. The Libraries is committed to not only sustain but also grow humanities support in the coming decades. The Libraries maintains a rich tradition of supporting humanities scholarship in three thematic areas: collections, research-support services, and preservation and access.


The Libraries maintains one of the largest academic book acquisition programs in North America, much of it focused on the humanities. During a period when many peer institutions have experienced cuts or no increases to their acquisitions budgets, the Libraries has sustained collections budgets with increases each year. The overall collection has grown 45% over the past decade, totaling 12.3 million volumes in 2013. Print materials within the collection have grown 21% since 2004, with a corresponding growth in print materials supporting the humanities. At present, approximately 75% of the book budget is spent on print books, reflecting the continued importance of print to humanities researchers. The Libraries also invests heavily in films, sound recordings, maps, photographs, art, artifacts, and a variety of other formats directly supporting the humanities.

In addition to a vast and growing print collection, the Libraries has assembled the largest electronic resource collection in North America, which includes access to extensive collections of electronic journals, books, music, video, and historical and humanities databases. This expansive array of resources brings important primary historical documents and literary texts to humanities researchers at Columbia. Some recent examples include Nineteenth Century Collections Online and State Papers Online. Many peer institutions are unable to invest in these and similar resources because of tightening acquisitions budgets.

Collection building includes the active acquisition of foreign materials in multiple languages, much of which is focused on the humanities. In addition to collecting in all major Western languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, the Libraries employs subject specialists who collect materials supporting African Studies, Jewish Studies, Latin American and Iberian Studies, Middle East and Islamic Studies, Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, South Asian Studies, and East Asian Studies (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Tibetan). The Libraries has also sustained investments in foreign language cataloging expertise to support discovery and access for these materials, much of it targeted at humanities collections.

The Libraries has one of the most active rare book, manuscript, and archival acquisitions programs in North America. The Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and the Starr East Asian Library all maintain active special collections acquisitions programs. Important improvements in archival processing procedures and expanded investments in rare book cataloging expertise have opened up vast quantities of primary source material to researchers over the past decade.

Research Support Services

The Libraries has sustained strong professional staffing support for the humanities. At present, 13 full- time professional staff in the Humanities & History division support humanities research and teaching. This core humanities support is supplemented by professional staff in several other divisions, including the Avery Architectural & Art Library, the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Global Studies,

the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and the Starr East Asian Library, collectively offering more than 60 professional staff in support of the humanities.

The Libraries has expanded core services, offering an array of research support and library education activities with a strong humanities focus. Staff from the Humanities & History division teach over 200 research education classes a year in support of humanities disciplines and the Core Curriculum. Across all divisions supporting the humanities, Libraries staff taught over 400 research education sessions and answered over 23,000 reference questions in 2013.

In partnership with the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, the Libraries offers several unique internship programs for graduate students at Columbia. The Primary Resources internship program is designed to immerse humanities graduate students in primary source research through a hands-on introduction to archival work, while the Digital Center internship program exposes graduate students to emerging research methodologies and digital scholarship in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Dozens of Columbia graduate students, many from the humanities, have completed internships in these highly successful and popular programs.

The Libraries is developing a rich and active digital humanities program. The Digital Humanities Center, within the Humanities & History division, is expanding the expertise and technology resources available to support emerging research and teaching methods in the humanities. A Digital Scholarship Coordinator position was added in 2012, and the incumbent is actively partnering with humanities faculty and graduate students on several projects, such as the Open Syllabus and ChartEX: Digging into Data projects. Digital Humanities Center staff provide support to faculty and students working with digital text, bibliographic, image, and video information in their research and teaching.

Preservation and Access

Through institutional commitment and grant funding, the Libraries has expanded conservation and preservation capabilities to better care for rare and endangered humanities collections. An endowed conservator position was added to the preservation division in 2011 through generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon and Sherman Fairchild foundations.

The Libraries is a recognized leader in preserving primary source material found on the web. Through grant funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Libraries is developing processes for ensuring the long-term preservation of web content and documentation necessary for preserving the scholarly record. The Human Rights Web Archive, maintained by the Center for Human Rights Documentation & Research, provides an excellent example of this work.

The Libraries has built an extensive collections digitization program, centered on humanities materials. Through national digitization projects, such as the Google and Internet Archive initiatives, and local digital collection and exhibit activities, the Libraries is actively expanding access to collections that were previously only available to those able to visit the Columbia campus.

The Libraries has increased access to humanities materials at other research libraries through participation in several reciprocal library access and borrowing programs (MaRLI, BorrowDirect, and SHARES). Through these programs, Columbia humanities researchers can borrow materials from the New York Public Library research collections, the New York University Libraries, the research libraries at Brown, Chicago, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Princeton, and Yale, and gain access to most major research libraries in North America. Locally, the Scan & Deliver service provides scans of articles and book chapters from print collections to faculty and students upon request.

The Libraries supports humanities researchers from across the country who wish to conduct research using Columbia’s extensive special and archival collections through the Library Research Awards program. Each year the Libraries grants $2,500 travel awards to 10 faculty and graduate student scholars from across the United States in this highly competitive program.

The Libraries actively participates in major national humanities initiatives such as the Digital Public Library of America and HathiTrust, with several staff members participating on planning teams and advisory boards for each. In addition, the Libraries, through the Copyright Advisory Office, advocates for updating and improving national copyright laws to increase access to humanities materials whenever possible.