Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Introduction to the Catalog

 Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures from the Special Collections of Columbia’s Libraries brings together for the first time selected objects from the eleven Special Collections that exist within the Columbia University Libraries and their affiliates. Organized in honor of Columbia’s 250th anniversary, the exhibition celebrates both the rich collection of books, drawings, manuscripts and other research materials that have been gathered since King’s College had its start near Trinity Church in lower Manhattan in 1754 and the generosity of the donors whose gifts have made possible the work of students and scholars for many generations.

The Special Collections of Columbia have as their mission the organization, preservation, and public presentation of materials that are unique, rare, or too fragile to be included in the circulating collections of the Libraries. Their contents include rare books, manuscripts, individual and corporate archives, architectural drawings, ephemera, musical scores, works of art in a vast range of media, sound recordings, motion picture films, videotapes, and realia – texts and artifacts that embody more than 5,000 years of human history, from the Mesopotamian empire to the breakup of the Soviet Union and beyond. Although many of these objects would command high prices on the collectors market, within the context of a teaching and research institution, their value is both higher and more abstract.


Collectively, the Libraries’ collections form an extended record of experience that is rich, varied, provocative and rewarding, a living archive where objects and texts gain value by proximity and context. In addition to long-acknowledged treasures – the Audubon “Double-Elephant” folio Birds of America, the Phoenix book of hours, the four Shakespeare folios, and John Jay’s manuscript of Federalist Number 5 – the curious researcher can find at Columbia Renaissance playing cards, Chinese oracle bones, nineteenth-century puppets, missionary archives, fragments of the Iliad on papyrus, interviews with long-dead national leaders, and photographs of Rasputin and the Romanovs at home. These live with archival collections of tremendous depth. They inform one another, making possible that discovery of unexpected relationships that may lead in turn to new knowledge. Together, the holdings of the Special Collections Libraries offer the students and faculty of the Columbia community those special opportunities for teaching and learning that are the defining characteristic of a great university.

Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures from the Special Collections of Columbia’s Libraries celebrates the presence of these unique resources in the city of New York and illustrates their amazing range of content. Visitors to the metropolitan area and New Yorkers themselves often have no idea of the existence of the collections at Columbia and even alumni, after spending years on and around the campus, are frequently astonished to learn of the range and diversity of the University’s holdings. Despite a long history of research use, public exhibitions, and now international exposure by means of the World Wide Web, the special collections of the Libraries are sometimes viewed as buried treasures, secret caches of rarities that are seldom shared. We hope that Jewels in Her Crown will change this perception by refreshing the memories of old friends and introducing to others the scope of these research materials, and the pleasures of the mind and delights to the senses that an academic library can provide.

The objects pictured in this catalog and on our institutional website form, of course, only the proverbial tip of the bibliographic iceberg. Each of them is intended to direct attention to the larger collections of which they are a part. Following rather loosely the topical organization used in a brief exhibition of Columbia Library treasures mounted in 1951 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the College’s founding, Jewels in Her Crown is designed less as a display of traditionally defined “treasures” (although we know there are many of those) than as a map of territories that include both well-known paths and unfamiliar by-ways. We hope that visitors to the exhibition and readers of the catalogue will be moved to follow these guideposts toward the individual libraries that have lent their works.

Shortly after the New York diarist George Templeton Strong matriculated at Columbia College in 1835, he noted that in 1776 the library of his new school had been ”the finest in the country.” Dispersed by the invading British soldiers who reportedly burned books and sold them for grog, the collections survived in part only because the Reverend Charles Inglis, who was himself forced to flee the city a few months later, hid somewhere between 300 and 800 volumes and some scientific apparatuses in the steeple of St. Paul’s. They were discovered by accident some thirty years later when workmen attempted to replace an organ in the church and came upon the door to a locked closet.

Whether or not this steeple room can claim the honor of being the Library’s first rare book vault is open to question, of course, since there is no record of which volumes survived. The earliest gifts-in-kind to the College Library had come from local ministers and lawyers and, perhaps surprisingly, from Oxford University, which donated in 1772 thirty books that had been published by the Clarendon Press. Although these might today be identified as rare, at the time they comprised a working library for the College students. Some of them, along with the libraries of Samuel Johnson, the first President, and his son William Samuel Johnson, were later re-acquired by the University, and are part of the Rare Book and Manuscript collection of the Library.

In the decades following the establishment of Columbia College, the library collections, like the school itself, grew very slowly and little attention was paid to materials that were valuable for their own sake unless they contributed directly to the education of the small and often unruly student body. In fact, by the middle of the nineteenth century, despite some interesting purchases and gifts from faculty, including Professor of Italian Lorenzo Da Ponte and President Nathaniel Moore, whose private library was rich in classical titles, the Columbia collections had fallen well behind those of the other established educational institutions in the Northeast. The resources available in other libraries in New York were considered sufficient and students were at times actively discouraged from even using the College books. Acquisition funds remained low for decades. The first full-time librarian was not appointed until the 1830s and the first printed catalogue not issued until 1874. In light of this, it is perhaps remarkable that the college was one of the three United States college or university purchasers of the great folio edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America, still a cornerstone of the Libraries’ special collections. Strong, who in 1842 records his visit to “Alma Mater” to inspect the Audubon plates, complains in the 1860s from his perspective as a member of the College Library Committee about the sparse funding available for the purchase of rare and interesting books and the Committee’s inability or unwillingness to spend money on the acquisition of distinguished collections. (It is gratifying to note that Strong did donate many books himself to the library, including what appears to have been the first medieval manuscript in the collection, bound with an early 16th-century printed breviary.)

The substantial library of Leander van Ess was purchased in 1838 by the faculty of Union Theological Seminary (as of 2004 a member of the Columbia Libraries community) and the John Jay library was donated by the Jay family to the Law faculty in 1860, but the real development of special collections at Columbia itself had to wait until the institution began to take shape as a modern research university in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Although the College had depended on the largess of donors to support its book collections since it accepted the library of attorney Joseph Murray in 1758, the first major gift of books and support for the Libraries came only in 1881 when Stephen Whitney Phoenix, a member of the class of 1859, bequeathed both money and part of his own impressive collection of rare materials. These included a Shakespeare First Folio (1623), a Caxton printing of Christine de Pisan’s The fayt of armes and of chyvalrye (1489), and manuscripts by Robert Fulton and Nathaniel Hawthorne, along with 7,000 additional titles. In the years following the Phoenix bequest, special materials donated to the Library included Persian, Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts, classical texts and early American documents, along with core works in a variety of disciplines and a growing body of documents related to the history of Columbia.

The 1897 opening of Low Library on the new Morningside campus relieved some of the crowding in the downtown stacks, giving more room for imaginative collection development. The expanded programs of the University and its growing reputation as a center for professional study with an international constituency and faculty stimulated a period of rapid growth that encompassed special materials as well as the general collections. The growth of the American economy which resulted in the accumulation of private wealth in the years surrounding the beginning of the twentieth century stimulated both bibliophily and philanthropy, and although the University Librarians George Hall Baker and James Canfield both actively discouraged the purchase of books that required special care and were rarely used, such materials were regularly added to the Libraries, both by donation and by the use of restricted funds.

For example, even before the University moved uptown, Samuel Putnam Avery and Mary Ogden Avery had endowed the Avery Library at Columbia, a memorial to their son Henry, an architect who died young. From its start, the Avery actively purchased rare and expensive volumes as part of its mission to collect comprehensively in the areas of architecture, archaeology, and the decorative arts. The Chinese collection, established shortly after the founding of the Department of Chinese in 1901, was greatly augmented by a gift of the 5,044 volume encyclopedia Tu shu ji cheng from the Empress Dowager of China. In the same period, gifts of the papers of Anton Seidl, an eminent conductor, and of significant first editions and autograph letters by the composer Edward MacDowell, first chair of the Department of Music, enriched the resources available for the study of music performance and history. Whatever the official attitude of the administration might have been, exhibitions of rare books in the rotunda of Low Library – including a loan exhibition of the books of J. P. Morgan – made it clear that there was an appreciative audience for these materials at Columbia.

With some exceptions, the large collections in all fields from which the majority of the items in this exhibition were drawn, however, were not added until the 1920s and 1930s, when the expansion of the University’s programs encouraged the rapid growth of the Libraries. The collections of Edwin Robert Anderson Seligman (economics), David Eugene Smith (mathematics and astronomy), George Arthur Plimpton (medieval and Renaissance manuscripts and education), Brander Matthews (drama), Acton Griscom (Jeanne d’Arc), Edward Epstean (photography), Park Benjamin (American literature), and the American Type Founders Company (history of printing) all came to the University in this period. The Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center opened in 1928 giving new life to the historical collections gathered by the College of Physicians and Surgeons, which included the libraries of John Green Curtis and George Sumner Huntington. Equally significant additions were made to the collections at Avery, the Law School, Barnard (founded in 1889), the East Asian Library (now the C. V. Starr East Asian Library), the Office of Art Properties, the Music Library (now the Gabe M. Weiner Music & Arts Library), and the Union Theological Seminary.

The organization of a Friends of the Library group in 1928 by Mr. Plimpton and Professor Smith lay behind many of these acquisitions, since the Friends had taken upon themselves the task of building the resources of the Libraries. Because the differentiation between the circulating collections in day-to-day use by undergraduates and students in the professional schools and those materials requiring special care if they were to survive had become clear as a critical mass of the latter accumulated, new approaches to the management of these collections were developed. In 1930, Columbia became the first institution in the country to establish a separate Rare Book Library (later renamed the Rare Book and Manuscript Library) with a mission to collect and preserve early and rare materials. This Rare Book Library, which moved from Schermerhorn to Low to the new South Hall (eventually christened Butler Library), remained just one of the many places where rare materials were pursued and acquired. A 1936 publication of the Friends, Bibliotheca Columbiana, listed contributions to and purchases of unique materials by the Mathematics Library, the Music Library, Avery, and Columbiana; an earlier issue of the same publication had described the Japanese collections, the Abbott collection of Sanskrit and Marathi manuscripts, the Epstean collection of books on the history and science of photography, and several others. Such riches supported a growing interest at the University in the history of books, printing and the transmission of texts. The development of this interdisciplinary field was supported by the Friends, partly in response to the collecting interests and tireless advocacy of the first Rare Book Library Curator, Helmut Lehmann-Haupt, who had come to Columbia from the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz. Lehmann-Haupt encouraged the purchase of the distinguished library of the American Type Founders Company, which still forms one of the unique strengths of the Library collections.

After World War II, the special collections continued to receive gifts and to buy materials as their budgets allowed. The manuscript collections were enhanced by the addition of the papers of Gouverneur Morris, John Jay and Herbert H. Lehman, among others; the Bakhmeteff Archive, developed on campus in the 1950s but only formally added to the Libraries in the early 1980s, brought over 1,000 collections from the Russian 8Emigr8E community to the pool of research materials available for the study of Russian and East European history and culture. The addition of publishing archives and the archives of literary agents, initiated by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library Director Kenneth Lohf, much enriched the field for study that his predecessor Lehmann-Haupt had promoted five decades earlier. Rare book collections given by members of the Friends of the Library made first editions of important texts in all languages available for study. The Oral History Research Office, founded in 1948, had by the end of the 1990s created, transcribed and catalogued more than 1,700 hours of interviews.

Special Collections Libraries have as their special mission the preservation of the material objects that have for five millennia transmitted knowledge from one generation to the next. The exciting possibilities for new kinds of access to fragile materials provided by the development of digital tools make the existence of such libraries even more important perhaps than they were in the past. The electronic enhancement of faded writing, and the ability to juxtapose images to discover fine similarities and compare detail, bring to the scholar tools for research that are far beyond what was available in the very recent past. Yet the conviction that these objects of study – the original books, manuscripts, ephemera, works of art, historical artifacts – not only contain texts but in themselves are texts that will repay careful scrutiny with knowledge and pleasure is unlikely to waver. Hand-printed playing cards, crudely printed legal documents, notes written on shards of pottery, and cross-written letters from a field of battle all breathe the past to us. The replacement of paper-based books and manuscripts as vehicles of information by electrical impulses in cyberspace is a process that replicates in its own way the replacement of clay tablets by papyrus scrolls, and the subsequent replacement of papyrus by parchment and parchment by paper, but it is not yet clear how issues of permanence in relation to these digital materials will be resolved. We must hope and assume that we will enable the survival of e-mail, digital files and videotapes to convey the thrill of discovery to researchers of the future as they plunge eagerly into their new-old worlds.

We hope that visitors to Jewels in Her Crown: The Treasures from the Special Collections of Columbia’s Libraries, in both its physical and its online form, will share our excitement in seeing these extraordinary books, manuscripts and works of art. We hope also that the exhibition can stimulate an appreciation of the cultural diversity that forms the foundation of learning in a modern university and of the way in which, within a great repository, old objects can be rediscovered by succeeding generations. Books and manuscripts from different historical periods are transformed by juxtaposition, their significance slipping and sliding about as they are placed in changed contexts and new collections added to old. Under¬ graduates at Columbia studying the Iliad and the Odyssey may look at a fragments of papyrus from as early as the third century bce, medieval manuscript abbreviations of the text that were the “Cliff Notes” versions of their day, the editio princeps (first printed edition) in 1488, the 1517 edition of the works published by Aldus’s heirs and presented by the theologian Philip Melancthon to his colleague Martin Luther, Alexander Pope’s English translation of the Iliad (1715–1720) and the Odyssey (1725), or the first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) – each work in a sense providing a commentary on the others. As the objects in this exhibition suggest, and the collections they represent demonstrate more fully, great libraries can transcend time, space and cultural difference, enriching directly or indirectly all of us who seek knowledge or experience the pleasure of learning.

Finally, it is impossible to write about special collections without including a word of gratitude to donors. For 250 years, the Columbia Libraries have benefited from the generosity of those who have given books and manuscripts, who have donated funds for the purchase of collections, and who have encouraged their friends and associates to add to the special collections. There are many of them. Some of these people have been faculty, others alumni, but many others have simply acted on a generous conviction that by giving to libraries they are both preserving the past and enhancing the future. We believe they are right. Thank you.

Jean Ashton
Director, Rare Book and Manuscript Library


Columbia University Libraries / Butler Library / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-7309 /