Category Archives: American History Collections

What is this place? A short intro to RBML

That is the question we hear a lot at the beginning of the new academic year as students explore Butler Library and end up here, in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library, aka “The Pink Palace.”

pink castle design and acronym rbml

Is there difference between a “castle” and a “palace?”

The Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML) is Columbia’s principal repository for primary source collections.  The range of collections in the RBML spans more than 4,000 years and includes rare printed works, cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets, papyri, and Coptic ostraca; medieval and renaissance manuscripts; posters; art; comics & cartoons, and oral histories.

Forming the core of the collections: 500,000 printed books, 14 miles of manuscripts, personal papers, archives and records, and 10,000 (and counting) oral histories.

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New Collection | Morningside resident’s papers document her fight against CU’s 1960s gentrification

Rachel Klepper, a summer intern with RBML’s archives, shares what she’s found through processing the Marie Runyon collection.

In the early 1960s, Marie Runyon received notice that she and her young daughter would have to leave their Morningside Drive apartment building just a few years after moving to the neighborhood. Columbia College of Pharmacy, the owner of the building until it was later sold to Columbia University, planned to move its campus from Lincoln Center to Morningside Heights and would be evicting the tenants.  Runyon quickly began what would become an intense, decades-long legal battle to keep her apartment and those of her neighbors, which would bring her to the forefront of conflict over real estate and gentrification in Morningside Heights.

A collection of Marie Runyon’s papers, newly available in the Columbia University Archives, documents her life and her fight against Columbia through court records and through letters, articles, and flyers documenting the work of neighborhood and student activists. These papers reflect Runyon’s outspokenness and the tenacity she brought to her personal life and her organizing work. They also demonstrate her commitment to highlighting critical questions about the impact of Columbia University’s expansion in Morningside Heights and Harlem on individual residents and on the racial and economic makeup of the neighborhood. Continue reading

In the alcoves…of your mind with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The RBML is home to a number of Carnegie Corporation collections, including the records for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP) organizational records. The CEIP, established in 1910, was dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations and promoting active international engagement by the United States.

In this post , Steven Witt, an associate professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, takes a look at The Mind Alcove: “The International Mind Alcoves (1917–1954) aimed to change global perceptions regarding armed conflict and international peace. Central to this goal: the idea that a sustained peace requires cultural understanding engendered by education and exchange.”

handrawn graph of book donations

This handwritten bar chart represents the distribution of approximately 156,000 books under the auspices of the International Mind Alcoves, comprising 1,567 collections spread across the United States and around the world between 1925 and 1951. | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Read the full post on the Carnegie Corporations’ blog.

 

Grant Awarded | CLIR Bob Fass

fass in recording studio with musicians

“Radio Unnameable” host Bob Fass with a group of in-studio guests. Courtesy of Lost Footage Films.

Columbia University will preserve and provide access to almost two decades’ worth of audiotapes from the archive of groundbreaking broadcaster Bob Fass. Through a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, the RBML and Columbia’s Preservation and Digital Conversion Division will preserve Fass’ broadcasts from the 1960s and ’70s.

A pioneer of “free form” radio for seven decades, Fass is best known for his late-night program Radio Unnameable. During the sixties it featured unscripted appearances by poets and musicians like Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, and social activists like Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary – a forum where listeners could interact with their idols and one another.

In 1968 alone, Fass broadcast live events like the “Yip In” at Grand Central Station, Columbia University student protests, and the Chicago Democratic National convention. Once digitized, these recordings will be a major resource to study mobilization of dissent via mass-media in late-twentieth century America.

And happy birthday, Mr. Fass! Today (June 29th) is his 85th birthday.

Marking Juneteenth in the words of formerly enslaved Africans

Mary Freeman, a doctoral student in Columbia’s History Department and a valued student employee here in the RBML, shared a few of her findings related to the Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, holiday.

Mr. D.N. Leathers Sr., Walter Leathers’ Father Celebrating Juneteenth | DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865, presents an opportunity to highlight a rare resource at Columbia’s RBML in the Frederic Bancroft Papers. Bancroft’s notebooks include interviews he conducted with former slaves during trips he took to the South in the early 1900s. Bancroft recorded their answers to questions he asked about their experiences under slavery as well as many of his own observations about life in the Jim Crow South.


During the Great Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration assembled an extensive collection of narratives told by former slaves. Despite its biases and limitations—the interviews were conducted almost entirely by white researchers, who often used racist dialect to record the words of their subjects—historians have come to rely on the WPA collection as one of the few archival resources that tells the story of emancipation from the viewpoint of former slaves who experienced it. Frederic Bancroft, who received his PhD in history from Columbia, interviewed former slaves during his travels in the South in 1902 and 1907, thirty years before the WPA conducted its interview project. Bancroft used these research notes when compiling his book, Slave Trading in the Old South (1931).

Bancroft’s interviews suffer from some of the same interpretive issues as the WPA sources. Bancroft grew up and was educated in the North, but he, like most white Americans of his time, held racist views. Furthermore, many of his notes are in shorthand, which presents a challenge to modern-day readers. Even so,  they offer a rare glimpse into the experiences and memories of former slaves and their descendants.

Collection Update | The Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers Come Out

In 1990, Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman donated a collection of papers to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. It was small—just a few boxes of correspondence, literary manuscripts, and publications. Duncan and Chapman nevertheless asked that it be closed to researchers until both of their deaths. What great secret was contained therein?

Ben Duncan typed finding aid summary

RBML’s collection summary for the Ben Duncan Papers, circa 1997, concealed nearly as much about the collection as it revealed.

Not many more years passed before Duncan and Chapman spilled the beans themselves. They were a couple, and had been for decades. The story of Ben Duncan, Dick Chapman, and their papers illustrates the ways that gay men living on both sides of the Atlantic formed communities, found love, and told their stories as they navigated the dramatic social and political changes of the second half of the twentieth century.

Dick Chapman typed letter description of San Remo Cafe in Greenwich Village

Dick Chapman visited the famous Greenwich Village Bohemian hangout San Remo Café in January 1957, which he called “95%” a gay bar. (This letter was written more than twelve years before the Stonewall riots.)

Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman met at Oxford University on New Year’s Eve, 1951. A mutual friend had set them up on a blind date. Several months later, overlooking Christ Church meadow at sunset, Ben proposed that they spend the rest of their lives together.

Ben Duncan was an orphan who had spent most of his childhood in group foster homes in Alabama. Dick was Ben’s only family, as they both understood. Ben Duncan to Dick Chapman, February 7, 1957.

In the 2005 edition of his memoir, The Same Language, Ben wrote, “We made the decision in the way we would continue to make so many of them in the future. I dream up some outlandishly unlikely plan, in the teeth of reality. Dick explains that it is quite impossible. Then, somehow, we do it.” Ben was an American who had just completed his degree at Oxford, had no job, and thus had no legally compelling reason to remain in England. Dick still had a year left at Oxford. The immigration benefits associated with marriage were as inaccessible to the two of them as the moon.

Ben Duncan typed letter to Dick Chapman during geographical separation

While Dick Chapman worked in New York City, Ben Duncan stayed in the London flat he and Dick had shared. He wrote eloquently to Dick about how it felt to stay behind, in this excerpt from February 10, 1957.

Nevertheless, the longest separation Ben and Dick would ever endure was from October 1956 to October 1957, when Dick’s advertising career took him to New York for a year. The letters they wrote to each other, almost daily, form the heart of the Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers.

typed letter from Dick Chapman to Ben Duncan

Four months into his year in the States, Dick Chapman found himself “spell[ing] American.” Dick Chapman to Ben Duncan, February 10, 1957.

Duncan and Chapman kept their letters in a sealed box until 1989. That year, they met Kenneth A. Lohf, who was then Librarian for Rare Books and Manuscripts at Columbia University. A mutual friend, the book collector and Columbia alumnus Dallas Pratt, arranged the meeting in London. In addition to sharing Duncan and Chapman’s love of English literature, Lohf had also lived with his long-term partner, Paul Palmer, for nearly forty years. Perhaps this was why Duncan and Chapman felt comfortable offering their letters to Columbia University. Lohf suggested that they include Duncan’s literary manuscripts as well.

Lohf’s firsthand understanding of the ways that romantic relationships between men could be hidden in plain sight doubtless influenced the way in which the Ben Duncan Papers were originally processed in 1990-1991. Calling the collection the Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers might have been too obvious, but the addition of Duncan’s manuscripts allowed it to be presented as Duncan’s papers alone. Thus the collection’s original name: the Ben Duncan Papers. The collection’s original summary likewise hinted at the importance of the letters without giving anything away. The archivist wrote, “The correspondence consists chiefly of letters between Duncan and Richard Chapman, during 1956 and 1957, when Duncan, an American, was working in advertising in England, and Chapman, an Englishman, was working in advertising in New York. These letters provide a perspective on daily life during the mid-1950s, including such topics as books, plays, current events, and customs of that period.”

typed letter from Ben Duncan to Dick Chapman about spotting closeted men in public

In commenting on a mutual friend’s romantic woes, Ben Duncan also provides a glimpse into the ways gay men carefully identified each other in mixed settings, as well as the necessity of conforming to masculine gender norms in order to avoid being “obvious.” Ben Duncan to Dick Chapman, February 7, 1957.

The idea of closing the collection to researchers during both donors’ lifetimes was also Lohf’s.

Lohf retired in 1993. By the time of his death, in 2002, the pace of change had picked up. Duncan began working to revise his 1962 memoir to include details of his life and relationship with Dick that would have been unprintable at the time—five years before homosexuality was decriminalized in England. He and his editor, John Howard, revisited the 1956-1957 letters as they prepared the manuscript.

Blue, gold and maroon Cover for revised Ben Duncan memoir

Cover for revised Ben Duncan memoir

Duncan gave another handful of manuscripts, including an as-yet unpublished sequel to The Same Language, titled Late Starter, to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2003. He did not, however, alter the restrictions on the collection.

Duncan and Chapman were not ashamed of their relationship, and, as Duncan wrote to Lohf in 1989, “there is nothing in any way scandalous or sensational” in the letters. In his revision of The Same Language, Duncan identified himself explicitly as a gay man, and described frankly the way that aspect of his identity shaped his experiences. I think he and Chapman simply preferred to live quietly, as they had done for fifty years.

Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman became the first couple in Cambridgeshire to form a civil partnership, when the Civil Partnerships Act came into effect in 2005. By that time, they had become icons in Cambridge’s gay community. Duncan was keenly aware how important their example was to younger generations of LGBTQ youth. “They wanted to hear, for a change, a story with a happy ending for people like them and us,” he wrote.

They finished their life together as a married couple when Chapman died in 2012. Duncan died four years later, in 2016. Now that the terms of the donor agreement have been fulfilled, their papers are open to researchers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Much as Duncan and Chapman revised the way they presented themselves to the world, I have also revised the collection’s description. Recognizing the donors’ original understanding of the collection’s historical significance (and the name they continued to use for it in correspondence with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library) I renamed the collection the Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers. I updated the biographical note to include information about both of its donors, and to make their relationship to one another clear. I also updated the scope and content information to highlight the letters’ value to scholars interested in LBGTQ history. In short, the collection came out of the closet. (Though it is, like all archival collections at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, still stored in closed stacks.)

When the revised edition of The Same Language was published, Ben told a reporter for The Guardian, “It was an absolute joy to write. I can’t tell you the sense of release. I wanted our lives put on record. I didn’t want the moment to pass and be forgotten. I didn’t want the bad things that happened to us to happen to anyone else.” I hope he would feel similarly about the opening of the Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers. — Celeste Brewer, Processing Archivist Ben Duncan signature

Dick Chapman signature

 

 

RESCHEDULED for tonight Book Launch | A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68

Monday, March 19th, 6pm, Faculty House, 64 Morningside Dr., New York, NY 10027 Presidential Room 2
book cover for a time to stir columbia '68

Celebrate the publication of, A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68, a new collection of essays written by Columbia ’68ers and edited by Paul Cronin.

There will be a short film presentation followed by a conversation with participants of the Columbia University protests. Featured speakers include Ray Brown, Karla Spurlock-Evans, and Mark Rudd. Paul Cronin will moderate the panel.

Co-sponsored by Columbia University Press. All events are free and open to the public. Registration is required; please search for event title or “RBML” on the Columbia University Events page. 

 

Conference | Get the full program for “50 Years After the Revolution”

From Morningside Heights to Mexico City, Czechoslovakia to China, Paris to Tokyo, in 1968, a year-long crisis linked world communities in a unique and epochal series of dramatic confrontations.

The repercussions are still being felt.

Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Lehman Center for American History, and the History Department are hosting, 50 Years After the Revolution, a two-day conference to consider the 50th anniversary of the global upheavals of 1968.

The conference will feature scholars, activists, and current students, focusing on a series of major questions related to the events of 1968, including the Media, Global Cities in Crisis, and Alternative forms of Political Activism.

Click program pages to enlarge.

This will culminate a semester of activities related to the 50th anniversary of 1968 that include courses in multiple departments, a speaker and film series, and an exhibition in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Register for the conference.