Chinese Rare Books & Special Collections

Thanks to active collection efforts by Chinese studies faculty and the library from 1902 when the Chinese Department and Chinese Library were established, most special collections at the library are Chinese-language rare books and other special materials. They include various types/genres, ranging from oracle bones, jade book, paintings, manuscripts, genealogies, local histories, family histories, to individual collected works and legal histories. Materials and documents on Qing and modern China on paper format account for a very significant portion of the collections. A great number of materials are unique items held nowhere but at the library.

Where to Find?

Catalogs and Portals

Chinese-language rare books and most special materials can be found by searching CLIO and preferable to many users, WorldCat which satisfactorily accommodates both traditional and simplified Chinese characters in addition to Library of Congress pinyin romanization.

Most Chinese rare books, particularly those over 1,000 titles cataloged through the early Chinese Rare Books Project, can also be found at Chinese Ancient Books Union Catalog 中文古籍聯合目錄 by choosing Columbia East Asian Library 哥倫比亞大學東亞圖書館 in the last field of Holding Library 原書館藏地.

China-related archives and special collections at Columbia can also be found by searching Archival Collections Portal and Oral History Portal

RBML, Burke, TC and Other Libraries

Other libraries at Columbia such as Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) in Butler Library, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, Teachers College (TC) Library, and Law School Library also hold collections of China-related special materials. In particular, Chinese Oral History Project results and papers in RBML and China Papers of Missionary Research Library Archives in Burke Library are world-renowned collections and have been heavily used.

RBML also holds, among many others, print leaves of Song Dynasty (960-1279), namely Ling ji duan bi 《零璣斷璧》, a collection of 12-title collection.

The collections of TC Library and Law School Library are not in CLIO or Archival Collections Portal but in WorldCat. 

A Print Catalog?

Users often asked for Columbia's print catalog, bibliography or title list of Chinese rare books and special collections. Such a general catalog has not been compiled due to a variety of reasons. Thus, CLIO and Worldcat should be used, especially for updated information of rare books and special collections.

How to Use?

Research Account and On-site Use

Chinese rare books and special materials of Starr Library are mostly stored at the Kress Rare Books & Special Collections Reading Room. To use these materials, users must visit the reading room during the hours it is open and follow the updated policies and regulations as specified.

But before the visit to use, one must make registration, request and appointment through Special Collections Research Account

Non-Columbia users are welcome to use rare books and special collections at Columbia. Generally, non-Columbia users are additionally required to register in the Information Office of Butler Library and an access card has to be obtained there; and the card should be presented to library staff for entering the library and using the materials. The librarian should be contacted first in order to timely obtain an access card from the Information Office.

Digital Access

Select rare books and special collections at Columbia such as Xin bian dui xiang si yan 《新編對相四言》, Ling Long Women’s Magazine 《玲瓏》, Guba hua gong diao cha lu 《古巴華工調查錄》, and Chinese Paper Gods 門神紙馬 of Starr Library have been digitized and made available online for public use. Much of the digitized rare and special titles are in Internet Archive, which is open to public, and some digitized contents are included in Columbia Digital Library Collections, which is only open to Columbia members.

A significant part of V. K. Wellington Koo Papers (Ku Weijun Papers) and a few other collections have been digitized with mainland Chinese partners. They are available for use in Chinese partner libraries but not necessarily at Columbia University Libraries. Interested Columbia researcher may request to use the digitized contents at Columbia. The Oracle Bone collection of Starr Library, however, is made accessible again through CADAL (scroll down and enter at 甲骨数字化) as of the end of August 2021.  

Actually a relatively comprehensive list of digitized Chinese rare and special titles from Columbia are accessible through the not-perfectly-organized but pretty useful Internet Archive volume list of Columbia Chinese rare and special.

Commercial and Exhibition Use

Besides for personal research use, samples of rare books and special collections may be for commercial use or borrowing for exhibition. The information can be found through links listed in the website of Preservation & Digital Conversion Division.

How to Reproduce?

Detailed information concerning orders and copyright for reproduction of Columbia University Libraries can be found at Preservation & Digital Conversion Division.

Particularly, Digitization and Reprographic Instructions must be followed and necessary copyright and order forms must be filled and submitted.

Policies, forms and personnel may experience changes over time, interdepartmental coordination is needed for digitization, reproduction and borrowing for exhibition. It is always useful to check updated online information.

Whom to Ask?

Researching rare books and special collections may not be as direct and easy as expected. Many special collections of significant nature have not been processed. The following are examples of unprocessed collections:

  • Papers of China Institute in America
  • Myron L. Cohen Formosa/Taiwan Land/Field Data & Records
  • Kiachi and Patricia Koo Tsien Collection
  • Tsuyee Pei Papers.
  • Weng Wan-go Film Reel Collection (partially processed; some converted into DVDs available in Columbia Digital Library Collections)
  • Weng Wan-go Papers 

It is hoped that they will be processed and made available for researchers in near future. 

Please direct questions about Chinese rare books and special collections to the Chinese Studies Librarian.

Librarians at other libraries holding Chinese rare and special materials and the Preservation & Digital Conversion Division may be asked too.


Chengzhi Wang, Ph.D.
Chinese Studies Librarian
307M Kent Hall
(212) 854-3721