Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 36 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The publisher Harper Brothers proposed to  seal Mark Twain’s memoirs until 2000.  Then they would be published by subscription (quoting the exhibit’s text) “in whatever mode should then be prevalent, that is by printing as at present, or by use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical methods or by any other method which may then be in use.”  The show has Twain’s 1900 letter agreeing to these terms. No doubt he didn’t want his meeting with the crew of the Starship Enterprise to mess with the timeline too much.

I’m not sure I should review the exhibition space at the Columbia Rare Book Library.  It isn’t readily accessible to the public — you can’t just drop by.  But I have an alumni library pass, and I was in the vicinity recently, and it is in my database.  So I figured, why not?

Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library resides in a surprisingly airy, skylit, and pastel space at the top of the university’s Butler Library.  It features two exhibit spaces:  a wall’s length of cases for general purposes, and an octagonal space that typically features items from Columbia’s own history.

Although a small space, the show I saw there indicates they use it well. That show celebrated the bicentennial of HarperCollins publishers, which started out as Harper & Brothers in 1817.

The Harper brothers started out as printers, but with their 1817 publication of an edition of Seneca’s Morals, they launched one of the most famous publishing concerns in American history.

The exhibit has some of their early ledger books, handwritten lists of works for which they held the copyright.

Harper & Brothers 1850s Era Ledger

It features old books galore, including a first American edition of Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick First Edition
Thar She Blows!

It also covers multivolume editions Harper did especially for schools and libraries, edifying or stultifying generations.  It spends time on their periodicals, which naturally helped promote the books.  And it turns out Harper published some of the most beloved books from my (and everyone’s) childhood.

Finally, E. B. White also published with Harper, making them responsible for my favorite book about New York City.

Here is New York

Harper & Brothers Bond Certificate
$500 Harper & Brothers Bond

In addition to many neat, nostalgic books, the show covers the history of the business. News Corp eventually bought it, merging Harper with Collins in 1989.  I liked a $500 Harper & Brothers bond certificate, and the curators called out the use of the  picture of the dog at the bottom as highly unusual.  However, I saw that same dog at the Grolier Club‘s currency engraving show not that long ago.  Small world.



The octagonal gallery had an exhibit documenting the history of gay student life at Columbia, from the time when homosexuality violated the law, through the AIDS crisis, to today.  I’m proud to say Columbia was home to the first gay student group on a college campus — the Student Homophile League — dating to 1967. Second most interesting thing I learned there.

Any bibliophile would find a visit the Columbia Rare Book Library worthwhile.  And maybe others would too. If the Harper exhibit is any indication, they can make even seemingly dry topics interesting and fun.  That said, it’s a small space in a college library, devoted to abstruse and obscure bookish topics.  So probably not a place to which everyone must rush immediately.

For Reference:

Address Butler Library, 6th Floor, Columbia University Campus. 535 W. 114th Street, Manhattan
Cost Free, but Columbia Library ID or equivalent required for entry
Other Relevant Links
  • NPR on University of California Press publishing of a “true” version of Twain’s autobiography in 2010.

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