Conservation and Education & Research


Columbia’s Libraries hold over 900,000 rare books, more than 48,000 linear feet of archives and manuscripts, and thousands of photographs and other media, ranging from clay tablets and papyri from the ancient world to modern artists books, music scores, and architectural drawings. The Conservation Department is charged with preserving all of these rare and special materials in their original physical form.

The Conservation Department team is led by three experienced conservators with diverse educational backgrounds and years of experience with special collections in North America, Europe, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand. They ensure that, whether in storage, in use in the reading room, or on exhibit, the Libraries’ unique collections are maintained in sound condition and will endure for future generations of scholars and students.

Columbia’s conservators use complex equipment to monitor the library stacks for optimal temperature and relative humidity to prolong the collections’ existence. They help prepare unique and valuable items for exhibit to the Columbia community and the public. Most importantly, the conservators use their specialized skills to repair and strengthen fragile items, making them safe for readers of today and future centuries to handle and study.

The use of scientific methods for analysis of books and other media provides crucial information to the conservators to guide their treatments, and also to scholars studying how artifacts in the collections were made and used. Columbia’s conservators take advantage of the university setting to collaborate in research, and share their results to expand knowledge across the conservation community.

CUL maintains two fully equipped conservation laboratories for the treatment of general and special collections materials. The main lab in Butler Library serves the special collections of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Avery, Starr, and Health Sciences. A smaller lab at Union Theological Seminary primarily serves the Burke collections.

In addition to the three conservators, the Department employs two full-time conservation assistants and several part-time Columbia students who assist with exhibition preparation and other tasks. This opportunity gives Columbia students insight into the work we do and an introduction to conservation knowledge to carry into their future careers.

Education & Research

As Columbia benefits from the Mellon Foundation’s gifts, we are sharing our good fortune by playing a leadership role in advancing conservation education, building on our long track record of hosting interns from American and European conservation programs. Professional training for American conservators stands at a crossroads today because the nation’s only program, at the University of Texas, has been closed. Professional education is essential, and Columbia’s expanded Conservation Department has joined in partnership with New York University Institute of Fine Arts (NYU-IFA) to teach rare book conservation in a newly established program.

The Conservation Department page describes the staffing and work of the department.