Some of the wild and wonderful things to be found in our libraries
By Alice McCrum
This summer, two historians of all things exotic travelled to Columbia from New South Wales to inspect the in-house celebrity of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library archive: the Cuneiform tablet, otherwise known by its stage name, Plimpton 322 (It is artifact #322 of the Plimpton Collection) is a 3,700-year-old Babylonian Tablet.
Plimpton 322 is about the size of two small pieces of toast, and has a similar dark brown color. The tablet, which confusingly sounds like an extraterrestrial spaceship, is far from the only surprise in the dark recesses of the library system. A Gutenberg Bible; Benjamin Franklin’s composing stick; a fabric “cheat sheet” left behind from the impossible Chinese examination system; the gold double-band wedding ring of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, and wedding handkerchiefs of Alexander and Elizabeth Hamilton from 1780 (Hamilton fans go wild); an original Lewis Hine photograph entitled Welder, Empire State Building, New York from 1930; a Frank Lloyd Wright Drawing of a Dining Room, Dana House from 1902; John Jay’s Federalist Number 5 paper of 1788; John Hunter’s The Natural History of Human Teeth—all share a home in Columbia’s RBML.
Columbia has accumulated over 30 million books, manuscripts, photographs and other objects across its twenty-six libraries. This includes Butler Library, the Geology Library, Journalism Library, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Burke Library, among others. There are specialty collections that range from East Asian Collections, New York City History, Law, Music, Health Sciences, Theology and Religion. But the well-known Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s accumulation of artifacts, located on the east side of the sixth floor of Butler Library, is special—is the one that draws the most attention.
I sat down with Tara Craig, the Public Services Librarian and Jennifer Lee, officially the Curator for Performing Arts, unofficially the source of wisdom and knowledge about Columbia’s weird and wonderful possessions, who oversaw the curation of the book Jewels in her Crown: Treasures from the Special Collections of Columbia’s Libraries.
Accessing the rare book archive is quite laborious, but, as Craig assures me, quite worth the effort. First, you have to make an online account to request the material. Next, you arrange a time to view your material, where you are checked into a special room (the air has more oxygen and less nitroge, so the sound waves travel on higher frequencies).The stacks are not open to the public, as rare books often have special protective boxes. As you examine your treasure work in the special room, there is an on-duty librarian at the front who ensures that you do not make off with the material— or worse, sneeze on it. Though this long process puts the “burden on the researcher,” as Lee puts it, researchers flock from the far corners of the world to work with the rare and exclusive pieces. In fact, roughly two-thirds of visiting researchers are not affiliated with the University, Craig notes.
Craig breathes life into the archive by drawing connections between pieces and the Core Curriculum. Veterans of Literature Humanities will be delighted to hear that this library contains some of the earliest known fragments of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well as a book of John Milton’s letters. And students of Contemporary Civilization might be interested that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley has a piece in the collection—a first edition Frankenstein. Indeed, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s archive is so enormous that it flows over into an offsite storage facility in Princeton, New Jersey. So check it out—, though, of course, you can never actually check them out.