Imagining the World: Unexplored Global Collections at Columbia

Concluding Thoughts

As we worked on this exhibit, we were struck by the thought that relating the wide array of items which are on display to one another could go via a route that traces the local and the global, through the wide variety of ways in which humans have responded to being in the world, or to the fundamental events that have shaped their lives across cultures and times. When these events and ways of being get expressed and recorded in materials that survive time and travel across milieus and eras, mirrors are held out to us akin to those of which Stendhal speaks in the quote mentioned in our introduction. That such documents of the lives of a community or the trajectories of a culture are collected --either systematically or serendipitously-  by academic libraries around the world has to do with a host of variegated and complex factors. And in thereby making an effort to uncover the significance of these documents for the community that produced them originally as well as for the contemporary scholarly communities accessing and researching them, these mirrors are positioned in very particular configurations that are equally revealing and concealing. Archives and special collections circulate through networks within a larger knowledge production body politic with its own ideas, interests, structure, goals, and logistics. And these larger structures have a life of their own, and a “reason” of their own, ones of which we often have only a hazy awareness. We can learn as much from reflection on how we have collected, on what we give access to and choose to highlight and research and engage with, as from the items themselves.This exhibit was a learning experience for us: it serves as a Stendhalian mirror, a tool for uncovering the many facets that our deep global collecting at the Columbia University Libraries have given rise to; a vehicle to showcase some of the inherent resonances that our global special collections collectively exemplify, embody, support and amplify in the scholarly arena; but it is also a tool to help us better understand some of our collecting practices, the silences, resonances and echos these embody, and the diversity of our interests and the communities we serve at the Columbia University Libraries.

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