Someone once said that the books in Butler were like candles during sex; they didn’t do much, but they set the ambiance. These books remain, largely, an untapped treasure trove of knowledge. Bwog Senior Staffer Nikki Shaner-Bradford interviews Columbia’s librarians about what they do and the resources they keep watch over.
The organization of academic life at Columbia arguably revolves around the vast network of libraries at our disposal, especially as we enter into the final weeks of the semester. At this point in the year, the demand for library seats is at an all time high, with some students resorting to their bi-yearly visit to the Butler stacks, and others taking the opportunity to discover an entirely new place to skim over a semester’s worth of readings. But how much work goes unnoticed throughout the year in these houses of knowledge? What is the true significance of the library at a major research university? (And with all of the significance placed on research, why were only 0.11% of Giving Day Donations made to the libraries?)
Over the course of two weeks, I set out to ask various people who run our libraries to tell me a bit more about what they do, and how they believe the access to a renowned reference collection alters the academic experience at this university.
As a research university, the library network at Columbia is extensive and critical to the work of professors, researchers, and students alike. According to the library website, there are over 13.2 million physical volumes within the collection, including books, journals, manuscripts, rare texts, and more. This doesn’t include the millions of online resources available to students and faculty. Columbia also staffs over 400 people within the department. The physical libraries surround us; dorms and classrooms radiate from Butler library at the center of campus, while others, like Starr and Avery, are interspersed throughout the area.
Thai Jones, the Herbert H. Lehman Curator for American History at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, works to acquire new collections for the school and promote use of the archives to students and professors alike. The Rare Book & Manuscript Library is one of the most unique branches, holding roughly half a million rare books and many other interesting bits of memorabilia: including a pair of jeans owned by John Steinbeck, a bodice worn by an actress who played Juliet in the 1820s, a time capsule from a skyscraper cornerstone, and the 1754 charter establishing King’s College.
According to Jones, Columbia is “among its peers […] unique in the breadth and diversity of its collections. I have almost always been able to find some archival materials to match any research or teaching need, ranging from African-American history to the temperance movement, to social science, to the history of childhood. In certain key collecting areas, the university’s holdings rank among the best in the country; these include Russian history, oral history, publishing and typography, theater and drama, business and philanthropy, human rights, and journalism.”
Some of the most notable holdings to Jones include a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s math homework, the first draft of John Jay’s addition to the Federalist Papers, and even Alexander Hamilton’s personal copy of The Constitutions of the Several Independent States of America.
In recent years, the library staff has worked to make research opportunities and academic materials more accessible to students as well. While the Rare Books library was once classified and difficult to access, today, Jones says: “hundreds of Columbia undergrads now pay at least one visit to the archives in the course of their studies. And many come back again and again.”
The development of technology has also contributed to these changes. While students and professors previously might have needed to write a letter requesting to view archived materials, digital technology has largely eliminated that need. With the invention of the internet, the ability for researchers and curators to access archived materials has increased dramatically. Today, the online collection is equally impressive as the print collection, and potentially even more so as librarians work to make these archived materials digital. If interested, students can access the Archival Collections Portal and search through thousands of the libraries’ holdings.
The significant underutilization of the vast online collection is apparent to student workers. Amaris Benavidez, SEAS ’19, works in the Watson Business School Library two days a week. She often redirects students to our online library catalogue, CLIO. The most frequent response she receives from students: “What’s a Clio?”
The resources she finds people often request at Watson are usually under business and economic topics. There are “a lot of economic resources,” Benavidez says, “like the Bloomberg terminals. Business librarians will help you with any type of research that you want to pursue, which includes real estate, management, and so on.”
Despite the serious atmosphere one might assume would pervade this particular library, Benavidez says, “It’s a collaborative space… you can bring in food and you can talk.” Because of this, it makes it a great place for networking and group projects alike. It also boasts some resources that might appeal to hardworking students; Amaris laughs that there are “really good vending machines that take flex and debit cards.”
I also spoke with Aimee Toner, BC ’20, who works in the Dodge Music Library (if you’ve heard of it). She agrees that it’s relatively unknown, but that it is also “a treasure on Columbia’s campus. It has large windows and so much natural sunlight [with] beautiful seventh floor views of the main campus.” If you’re seeking a change of pace for finals cramming, this might be a good choice. Toner describes Dodge as “very quiet and people are generally in a very good mood. The library has computers, a printer, a scanner, keyboards and headphones and computer music programs, a record player, and a seminar room.”
With all of these resources, staff try to encourage bringing classes to the library. Interim Associate University Librarian for Collections and Services Barbara Rockenbach expanded on the role of the university’s library within the classroom to me, stating that “having library collections with the depth and breadth of the Columbia library on campus enables faculty and students to do deep and intensive research. Beyond the collections, the Columbia Libraries have an expert staff that have made possible faculty-library partnerships that are unique among our peers. Columbia Librarians co-teach classes, participate on faculty grants, co-fund post-docs, and build digital projects with faculty.” As expressed by Rochenbach and seen in Thai Jones, the enthusiasm of the librarians for our collections is as strong as their depth of knowledge.
So, tomorrow, when you inevitably head for Butler, why not swing by the Dodge Music Library or Rare Book & Manuscript Library? You might find a surprise according to Jones. With such vast collections, Jones says that “Cataloguing can usually provide a rough map to the contents of the archival boxes, but in-person examination is still required. As a result, profoundly exciting discoveries remain for the diligent researcher. In the past few years, Columbia students have made some of the most newsworthy finds among the collections, including hidden records of the underground railroad, long-lost operas, and a manuscript for an unpublished novel by Claude McKay.” An investigative study break that might change the way you understand history isn’t such a bad way to procrastinate, right?
All the library staff I contacted encouraged students and faculty to reach out if in need of assistance — or even out of curiosity. With the incredible resources available to us both online and a few steps down College Walk, it seems a waste to hunt through Wikipedia for hours to find quotes for your final paper when you could discover your very own primary source.
Special thanks to all those willing to speak with me and provide information for this article; Abigail Lovell, Thai Jones, Barbara Rockenbach, Amaris Benavidez, and Aimee Toner. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if any information has been misrepresented.
mysterious image of butler stacks via Catherine Spangler/New York Times