RBML – 2020 in Review

Wednesday, September 9, 2020: RBML welcomes its first in-person researcher since March

2020 was a year like no other.  It started normally enough, but on March 16, 2020, Columbia University closed its physical facilities as part of the New York State-mandated PAUSE that sought to control the spread of COVID. For months, staff were permitted onsite only for essential security and maintenance checks.  As restrictions loosened over the summer, the Libraries began offering limited services to support the university’s mission, and expanded these into the Fall of 2020.

Here in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, we continued our stewardship of the rare and unique collections in our care throughout 2020. Although the specifics of our-day-to-day activities looked different, the basic imperatives to describe the materials and make them accessible remained the same.  For instance, we (re)described materials to uplift the women in our collections, we held talks highlighting our materials and creators, and we looked for historical analogs to today’s situation in the University Archives.

Thanks to the creativity and the herculean efforts of the Public Services staff, a completely re-imagined physical reading room was safely opened to Columbia affiliates in September 2020, and scanning and reference services were expanded and streamlined.

In the timeline below, I will share some highlights of the last ten months that I hope will showcase the remarkable efforts that my RBML colleagues have made, under these extraordinary circumstances, in continuing their mission to preserve and make accessible the collections we steward. So much of the maintenance and reference work we do is “behind the scenes,” so the bullets below necessarily represent just a fraction of the work that RBML staff has done since March 2020.

— Kevin Schlottmann, Head of Archives Processing and Interim Director


  • University Archives developed a COVID survey to capture the Columbia community’s experience in real-time
  • Staff scoped and began a variety of work-from-home projects



  • Our director left in August for the University of Pennsylvania
  • We discussed considerations for teaching with digitized archives
  • Public Services staff prepared to open a completely re-imagined reading room


  • RBML’s new COVID-era reading room opened in Butler 601, run by a cross-section of all RBML staff. In Fall 2020 we saw nearly 300 in-person reading room visits.
  • Tara Craig, Head of Public Service, was interviewed for the Libraries Spotlight BLOG about the reopening
  • Archivists and public services staff completed a project to name women who had been described using only their husband’s names


  • “Why Reconstruction Matters” panel featuring  Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, Eric Foner, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,  and moderated by Lee C. Bollinger, attracted wide attention
  • RBML mourned the passing of Mayor David Dinkins


  • The University Archives looked back on 2020
  • Over the course of Fall 2020, Public Services staff completed nearly 20,000 pages of scans
  • A set of four digitized medieval manuscripts were posted to the Digital Libraries Collections
  • The near completion of decades of work on our documentary editing project, the seven-volume series The Selected Papers of John Jay, was celebrated with an online conference and exhibit