What We Collect
Columbia’s principal repository for rare and unique materials, the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) holdings span four thousand years of recorded knowledge, from cuneiform tablets to early printed books and born-digital archives. While the subjects reflected in RBML’s collections are as broad as the teaching and research mission of Columbia University, the collecting program centers on the specific areas listed below.
If you are interested in making a cash gift in support of RBML please visit the Giving to Columbia webpage and select “Rare Book & Manuscript Library” from the dropdown menu. If you are interested in donating books, manuscripts, or other collection materials that relate to an active collecting area, please refer to the appropriate section below.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) collects personal papers and institutional records related to many aspects of U.S. history, with an emphasis on the Atlantic world, the Colonial Era and the Age of Revolutions, New York City, the U.S. Civil War, capitalism, business, and finance, charities and philanthropy, African Americans, social reform movements, intellectual history, and publishing and journalism. RBML prioritizes collections that support campus research and teaching, and those that relate to New York history.
We hold particularly strong collections documenting the history of journalism in America, including the records and papers of newspapers and other periodicals, publishers, editors, reporters, documentary filmmakers and television executives. We hold the archives of The World and Joseph Pulitzer, editors John Oakes and Sydney Howard Gay, television pioneers Roone Arledge and Fred Friendly, documentarians Pare Lorentz and Robert J. Flaherty, as well as distinguished columnists, correspondents, and reporters, including Walter Lippmann, Murray Kempten, Lincoln Steffens, Ernestine Evans, Herbert Matthews, and Harrison Salisbury, among many others.
Please contact Lehman Curator for American History Thai Jones.
Bakhmeteff Archive (Russian and East European Émigré History & Culture)
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Boris A. Bakhmeteff Archive documents the Russian and East European émigré experience within the general context of Columbia University’s academic programs. The archive became part of the Columbia University Libraries in 1951. By 1986, it had grown to become the second largest depository of Russian émigré holdings in the world after the Hoover Institution. A catalog of the holdings, Russia in the Twentieth Century: The Catalog of the Bakhmeteff Archive of Russian and East European History and Culture, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, was published in 1987 by G. K. Hall.
Ranging in subject matter from art history and literature to organizational history and politics, the approximately 1,500 discrete collections that comprise the Bakhmeteff Archive document many little known aspects of pre-Soviet and émigré life. Particular strengths include manuscript and visual materials relating to prominent figures in politics, literature, art, and religion from the “first wave” of Russian emigration (1880-1940). The archive also includes materials from the “second wave” (1945- 1970) of Russian emigration, including the papers of prominent figures in politics and culture, and the memoirs and personal papers of ordinary witnesses, as well as materials relating to the “third and fourth waves” of Russian emigration (1970-until present).
With the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s and the subsequent rejection of the socialist model of economic development in Eastern Europe, we have begun to add collections from this pivotal era, including Russian and East European émigré literature, philosophy, art, and science; émigré benevolent and professional organizations; Americans in Russia; and American views of Russia and Eastern Europe.
The Bakhmeteff Archive is comprised of many physical formats, including manuscripts, newspapers, journals, leaflets, and posters (legal and illegal), political brochures, photographs, drawings (including caricatures and cartoons), and other relevant materials.
Please contact Curator for the Bahkmeteff Archive Tanya Chebotarev.
The Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) holds two primary collections which contain children’s books: the Historical Collection of Children’s Literature, a large (10,000 volume) and diverse collection of children’s books, running through several centuries, continents, and formats, without being noteworthy in any particular aspect; and the largely Anglo-American George Arthur Plimpton collection of “our tools of learning,” which includes didactic juvenile material from all centuries.
We are seeking to add books and printed materials that fill gaps in the Plimpton collection, including penmanship manuals and geographies; and those which might be interesting in relation to printing technology; useful or evocative in Columbia classes, by subject matter, format or imagery; relate to other areas of interest in RBML such as Russian émigrés, U.S. history (especially 19th and 20th century aimed at freed slaves, immigrants, or other specific groups); and Greek and Roman classics.
Please contact the Curator of Literature Lina Moe.
Columbia University Archives
The Columbia University Archives collects, preserves, and provides access to records of enduring historical, legal, fiscal, and/or administrative value to Columbia University from the 18th century to the present. The University Archives, established in 1991, has its roots in the Columbiana Collection, a vast store of Columbia memorabilia including documents, records, artifacts, photographs and books which was created in the late 19th century and endowed as a department in 1930. Areas of documentation include contributions to teaching and research; the development of schools, academic departments, institutes, and administrative units; the development of the physical plant; campus and student life; public service; and the University’s role in the history of the metropolitan, national, and international communities. Prominent University Archives collections include Office of the President Central Files, Office of the Provost Records, the Historical Photograph Collection, and the University Protest and Activism Collection.
Records are collected regardless of format (paper, electronic, visual, objects) and include correspondence, university and student publications, photographs, negatives, minutes, reports, ephemera , audio-visual media, artifacts, theses, syllabi and other course materials, scripts, maps, posters, drawings, as well as born digital and electronic records. With the exception of periodic web site harvesting, the Archives will not collect records which are still in active use.
Records of individual students as well as records of other organizations and individuals which contribute uniquely to the understanding of the University’s history will be considered on a case by case basis for inclusion in the collection. Published works directly relating to the institution or about significant Columbia personalities will also be considered for the collection. Records relating to Architecture, Barnard College, Health Sciences, School of Law, and Teachers College should first be offered to those respective archival repositories before the University Archives will consider accepting them.
Please contact University Archivist Jocelyn Wilk.
Comics & Cartoons
The Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) collects archives relating to comics creators, editors, and publishers, with an emphasis on New York-area professionals, in keeping with RBML’s larger focus on the history of publishing. RBML also collects materials related to comics fan culture, especially convention material, fanzines, and fan mail. The collection welcomes all types of creators in the comics medium, including those who produce single-panel cartoons, comic strips, comic books, or graphic novels. Materials of interest include manuscripts, drafts, original art, roughs and tracings, correspondence, contracts, records, fanzines, artifacts, and other formats in support of research and teaching in comics studies as an interdisciplinary field.
Major collections currently held in this area are the Chris Claremont (X-Men) papers, the Al Jaffee (Mad magazine) papers, the Wendy and Richard Pini (Elfquest) papers, the Charles Saxon (New Yorker) papers, the Dennis Ryan editorial cartoon art collection, and the Kitchen Sink Press records, the last of which features over 40,000 letters between Denis Kitchen and every major underground cartoonist of the 1970s and 1980s. We also hold a small collection of Silver Age and underground comic books, comic-con programs, and, in the Pulitzer Prize Board archives, Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoons. The collections complement RBML’s holdings in American history and the history of publishing, as well as the Graphic Arts artist books collection and the Historical Children’s Literature collection.
Please contact Curator for Comics and Cartoons Karen Green.
While the University Archives purview emphasizes Columbia’s institutional records, the University Archivist will assess offers of faculty papers in consultation with RBML’s curators. We encourage senior faculty (especially University Professors and those with emeritus status) as well as high level administrators to consider donating their papers to the RBML. The criteria for selection include: outstanding contributions in and beyond his or her field, faculty whose area of research overlaps with RBML’s existing collecting strengths, and those which help to document the institutional history of Columbia University. In every case we look for materials that do not duplicate, but rather substantively enhance what can be found in the published record, for example correspondence, files relating to university committee work, and some research files.
Please contact University Archivist Jocelyn Wilk.
Hebraica & Judaica
The RBML Hebraica and Judaica collection maintains a strong focus on collecting unique materials, especially manuscripts that relate to our current and historical strengths. These include (but are not limited to) early modern Italy (especially Mantua) and Amsterdam, the Jewish communities of the Comtat Venaissan in France as well as those of Corfu, Spanish Jewry and its diaspora, and manuscripts dealing with communities or social history through the early modern period. Evidence relating to the history of the Jewish book, such as bookdealer archives or other bibliographic primary sources, are also of interest as a new area of collecting.
Due to the strength of Columbia’s Yiddish program, and since the RBML’s Archival Collection houses the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry (LCAAJ), unique materials in Yiddish are another important area of collection. Columbia’s strong collection of Human Rights archives includes materials relating to Jewish organizations, and this is of continued interest, as is Jewish philanthropy. Other notable Hebraica/Judaica collections at Columbia include the Oko-Gebhardt Spinoza collection and the Almanzi collection. The Almanzi collection includes materials from the libraries of Giuseppe Almanzi, Jacob Emden, and M. J. Lewenstein.
At this point, we have a very limited purchasing policy for early printed books. Additionally, Judaica Americana is generally out of scope for Columbia’s Judaica collection.
Please contact Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies Michelle Chesner.
History of Science & Mathematics
Mathematician and Teachers College faculty member David Eugene Smith (1860-1944) bequeathed his collection of 13,000 volumes relating to the history of science and mathematics to RBML in 1931. The date range of the Smith collection is the eleventh through the early twentieth centuries, while the geographic range is global, with particular strength in the Islamic world. Some highlights include principal editions of Euclid and Newton (including volumes from Sir Isaac Newton’s personal library), manuscripts by Voltaire and Albert Einstein, as well as mathematical instruments such as sundials and astrolabes. 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, which included the cuneiform tablet known as “Plimpton 322” further enhanced our holdings in the history of science and mathematics. As a result of the Smith and Plimpton gifts, RBML’s holdings of canonical works in this subject area (outlined in Bern Dibner’s Heralds of Science (1955) and other bibliographies) are very strong. We are, however, interested in filling what holes may exist, particularly in the history of mathematics and astronomy. In general, we are not seeking to add instruments and other artifacts to our holdings.
RBML’s archival collections are selectively strong in this subject area. Particular areas of emphasis include psychology (Otto Rank, Albert Ellis), engineering (Edwin H. Armstrong, Robert Fulton), physics (Michael Pupin), and medicine and public health (Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Lasker, the Community Service Society), as well as prominent Columbia University faculty, such as David Eugene Smith and Eric Kandel.The Archives and Special Collections department of Columbia University’s Augustus C. Long Health Sciences Library specializes in collecting materials in all formats that document the history of the health sciences, both generally and at Columbia.
Please contact the Director of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library Sean Quimby.
RBML is the repository for archives that support the mission of the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research: “to preserve and make available unique primary source materials related to the multi-disciplinary field of human rights.” The CHRDR is the official repository of the records of Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), and the Physicians for Human Rights. The primary focus of collecting is documenting the human rights movement and the history of human rights advocacy. The following interests guide the Center’s collecting activities:
Records of human rights organizations, primarily non-governmental organizations (NGOs). This includes organizations of varying size and scope, and those addressing a broad spectrum of human rights issues that reflect the change and evolution of the movement; organizations formed in the post-WWII era are of primary but not exclusive interest;
Papers of individual scholars/advocates associated with the major NGOs and/or persons who have made notable contributions to human rights advocacy;
Oral Histories of human rights advocates, especially interviews complementing existing archival collections;
History of human rights education at Columbia University (faculty collections, curricular and program related materials; histories of institutes, centers);
Collections related to human rights-related programmatic initiatives of the University, such as the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, and the Human Rights Institute.
Please contact Director of the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research Pamela Graham.
Latino Arts & Activism
The mission of Columbia's Latino Arts and Activism collection is to identify, acquire, preserve, and make accessible the papers and records of Latinos, Latino organizations, and other figures, primarily in and around New York City, that may be of enduring significance as research resources. Areas of principal interest include the arts, literature, culture, journalism, and politics. The collection seeks to be a rich source for scholars, students, and the public-at-large.
The collection was founded in 2012 by Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, who also serves as curator. The first acquired papers were those of writer and community activist Jack Agüeros. By 2015, the collection contained the archives of influential artists and organizations, including El Diario/La Prensa, writers Manuel Ramos Otero, Dolores Prida, and Rosario Ferré; and the community organization United Bronx Parents.
The collection’s greatest strength is in the manuscript and visual materials of key community organization and prominent figures in politics, literature, and art from the second half of the twentieth century to the present. The included papers to date provide an essential access to the cultural, literary, and journalistic production of Latinos in New York and other parts of the United States. It also offers insight into the ways that Latinos have organized in pursuit of fundamental civil rights. In addition, the archive represents an indispensable resource to understand the migration and settlement of U.S. Latinos, particularly in the Northeast.
The collection contains materials in various languages, most prominently English and Spanish. Whereas New York and the greater Northeast are essential geographical areas, the collection includes materials of figures whose work and lives developed in other countries but had a fundamental impact on U.S. Latinos. We collect a wide range of materials, including manuscripts, letters, recordings, film, rare publications, and small scale art. Special is given to acquiring materials related to subject areas, where the archive is already strong, including Latino arts, literature, and culture; Latino politics and organizing; and links between Latinos in the U.S. and their countries of origin.
Please contact Adjunct Curator for Latino Arts and Activism Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner.
Literature & Publishing
RBML collects poetry and fiction, with an emphasis on literary translation and the diffusion of genres and movements (i.e. Romanticism) from the eighteenth century to the present (and earlier as opportunities present themselves). Book collecting emphasizes the current teaching and research needs of the Columbia campus and builds on collection strengths in eighteenth-century belles lettres, the novel, fine press and artist books, and twentieth-century small press production. Other strengths include “obscene” or erotic literature, poetry between the World Wars, the European realist novel, the Beats, African-American literature of the twentieth century, and contemporary poetry. An effort is made to collect contemporary trade publishing that has significant artifactual value, such as a strong graphic or typographic element, unusual format, or intermedia component. Please see also our collecting statement on the performing arts.
Single-creator archival collections are not a strength of the RBML but exceptions are made for authors who are Columbia or Barnard alumni or faculty or whose careers touch another strength of the collection, such as those authors who are also publishers, who work in human rights, or who treat human sexuality. We hold the papers of William Bronk, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane and partial archives of several Beat authors, such as Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, Amiri Baraka, and Hettie Jones. The collection also includes the papers of important literary critics such as Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, and Edward Said, and we will continue to collect the work of important literary critics and theorists, especially those based on campus or locally.
RBML houses one of the country's premier collections of publishers' archives, including the archives of publishing companies, literary journals, literary agencies, and other organizations, as well as the papers of editors, publishers, and literary agents. Because New York City is the center of the nation's publishing industry, we have focused on the local scene but have expanded beyond where relevant or opportune. We have also sought to collect the papers of a range of organizations, from the papers of Big Six publishers to those of not-for-profit small presses and poetry collectives to capture the range of business models and the diversity of the industry.
Please contact the Curator of Literature Lina Moe.
Medieval & Renaissance Manuscripts
Because medieval and Renaissance manuscripts serve as the core and the demonstration resource for a number of classes in various departments (Art History, Classics, English, French, General Studies, History, Italian, Religion), we intend to follow the pattern that responds to this demand: primarily teaching and training. When considering new acquisitions, we will first consider the items value in teaching, secondly its value to research, and in the third position its potential for exhibition. We prioritize a manuscript's physical and historical value over its textual interest (since the classes to date that have made most direct use of this material are paleography and diplomatics, as well as the codicological component of art history classes). Specifically we will look for: as complete a book as possible, avoiding fragments unless they fill gaps that would be prohibitive financially as complete codices; interesting points of production; contemporary or otherwise significant bindings; and, known ownership. Legal documents or other archival material will not be given priority, since the David Eugene Smith documents collection offers adequate teaching resources in that area at the moment.
Decisions about the acquisition of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts are dependent on availability and costs. Nevertheless, the main directions remain clear; we will look for texts that emphasize Paul Oskar Kristeller’s legacy on manuscripts as primary resources; texts that build upon the George Arthur Plimpton Collection and the history of learning; and texts mathematical nature as collected by David Eugene Smith; texts that illustrate the study of classics as in the Gonzalez Lodge Collection; texts that relate to teaching interests of current Columbia University faculty (canon law, hagiography, liturgy, musicology); and texts that contain vernacular languages.
Please contact the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections Emily Runde Iqbal.
Historian and journalist Allan Nevins founded the Oral History Research Office (OHRO) in 1948. The OHRO is credited with establishing oral history as a field internationally. At over approximately 15,000 interviews, the Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC), as we are now known, is one of the largest oral history collections in the United States. The collections, when established, were not confined in scope to one region or area of historical experience. Early biographical interviews focused on distinguished leaders in politics and government — the “Great Men” of history. Over time, the biographical collection grew to include notable people in philanthropy, business, radio, publishing, filmmaking, medicine, science, public health, law, military, architecture, and the arts.
OHRO conducted several large-scale oral history projects in the 1950s and 1960s including: Radio Pioneers, 1950-1974; Chinese Republican Oral History, 1958-1976; Popular Arts, 1958-1960; Occupation of Japan, 1960-1961; Eisenhower Administration, 1962-1972; Psychoanalytic Movement, 1963-1982; and Nobel Laureates on Scientific Research, 1964.
Beginning in the 1980s, OHRO expanded its collecting approach to include activist histories of the New Left, civil rights, and peace movements, as well as community history. With a new sensitivity to the social construction of memory, our biographical interviews focused on illuminating social, political, and cultural history through the telling of a life story.
In the early 2000s, Columbia’s Center for Oral History’s research (CCOHR) team joined the Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics (INCITE) to focus its efforts on leadership in oral history methodology and educating the next generation of oral history students and scholars through its master’s degree program. Most recent CCOHR created oral history projects are housed in the Oral History Archives at Columbia.
In the 21st century, the Oral History Archives at Columbia is creating stronger oral history collections through attention to marginalized people and groups is a priority as a corrective to historically-biased attention to the white, cisgendered, heterosexual, physically abled experience.
We welcome queries regarding donating oral history interviews and collections in these areas of prioritization: space, broadly defined, to include displacement, development, gentrification, uses of space, start-ups and entrepreneurship, particularly in New York City, the art world and grassroots movement, including responses to gun violence, anti-Islamophobia and resisting anti-trans violence.
Please contact Curator of the Columbia Center for Oral History Archives Kimberly Springer.
The guiding principle of RBML’s performing arts collections was established by writer and educator Brander Matthews and his Dramatic Museum and Library, who set out to collect material that documented the business of the theater, rather than to simply collect texts. Major archival acquisitions document all aspects of the creative process and performance. For example, the Joseph Urban archive includes a wide range of materials specific to actual productions, from preliminary set designs to finished set models, photographs, and playbills. Material added to the theater holdings should inform the researcher about the living theater, such as printed texts marked as prompt copies.
The geographic focus is on collections with Columbia or New York City connections. In recent years, the collection has expanded to other behind the scenes aspects, such as performing arts criticism and technology and other performing arts including music, dance, and film.
Music collections mostly have either Columbia and/or New York City connections. Most are the papers of composers who either studied or taught at Columbia, such as Edward MacDowell, Jack Beeson, and H. Lawrence Freeman who founded his African American Grand Opera and music school in Harlem. With the recent acquisition of the Arthur Mitchell archive, RBML has begun to collect the history of dance in a way that speaks to other RBML collection strengths, including human rights, diversity, and Columbia University’s ties to Harlem civic and cultural leadership. RBML collects documentary--as opposed to narrative--film. The pioneering Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North) stands at the fore. Additional strengths are in film distribution and exhibition, focusing on independent and foreign film marketing, with collections such as Vogel and Talbot.
RBML holds the papers of a number of performing arts agents (Annie Laurie Williams and Constance Hope), philanthropists (Eleanor Robson Belmont and Andrew Carnegie) and critics (Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist). Finally, important collections relate to technology, especially the Earl Sponable papers with film, and the Edwin Armstrong papers with music. The Max Neuhaus papers show the development of his work as a pioneer of sound art.
Please contact Curator for Performing Arts Jennifer Lee.
Philanthropy & Social Reform
Archives devoted to social reform and philanthropy are a major feature of RBML’s collections, which include the records of important local, national, and international philanthropic organizations, as well as the papers of significant individual reformers and activists. The Carnegie Corporation of New York, founded in 1911 by Andrew Carnegie "to promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding," is the centerpiece of these holdings, which also consist of the records of the Ford Foundation International Fellowship Program, the Community Service Society, the Funding Exchange, and numerous collections detailing the operation of New York City-based settlement houses, juvenile asylums, and senior-citizen programs.
Please contact Lehman Curator for American History Thai Jones.
Printing History & Book Arts
The Book Arts have been a collecting focus of RBML since its inception in 1930. It contains both “books about books,” that is books about paper and other substrates, ink, illustration, typography, typefounding, printing, binding, and collecting; as well as examples of fine printing and book illustration.
We collect modern trade books about books, especially about printing technologies, with a particular focus on Anglo-America. We subscribe to a large range of periodicals about printing and book history. Books about Slavic, African, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Asian books are generally collected by Columbia University Libraries’ Area Studies bibliographers, though they may be housed in RBML’s Graphic Arts collection. Books about publishing are collected by the General Library.
As RBML has been collecting “specimens of fine bookmaking” for so long, we have a robust collection of high points in the history of printing, specimens from historic presses, fine press books, livres d’artiste, and, since 1991, artists books. Fine press and artists books are actively purchased, with preference to books exhibiting one or more of the following criteria:
substrate, type, illustration, and structure which together successfully convey an idea.
high level of skill/craft;
interesting printing/illustration technique and/or structure, in service to the text;
literary texts that relate to our collection (see the literature collection development policy), or a non-fiction work that relates to another RBML collecting area.
Collections (of books and/or archives) of the work of a specific illustrator, printer, designer are desirable. Archives that show working processes are especially desirable.
Thanks to the acquisition of the collection of the American Type Founders Company in the 1940s, the collection of pre-1900 type specimens is the best in this country. Modern type specimens are not generally purchased, but gifts of 20th and 21st century type specimens are gratefully received. We selectively add to a small collection of printing realia in support of teaching the material history of the book.
Finally, there is a modest endowment to support the Epstean Collection on the history of technology of photography. Edward C. Epstean (1868-1945) was a photoengraver who collected widely in the history of photographic technology, including printing techniques which incorporate photography, but not including examples of photography (unless they are part of an album which labels them by photographic process).
Please contact Rare Book Librarian Jane Siegel.