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 from RBML’s Archivists | August 2019

rows of archival boxes in a white room

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Head Archivist Kevin Schlottmann shares collections newly opened or updated by RBML’s Archivists.

New finding aids

Yehudah Joffe papers, 1893-1966, bulk 1920-1945
“The collection consists of Joffe’s correspondence, manuscripts/notes, and newspaper clippings. Joffe’s correspondence in Yiddish in English is both personal and professional, covering communication with institutions he was working at or hoping to work at. Joffe’s manuscripts contain drafts for lectures and notes on university seminars and lectures he attended under Prof. Roman Jakobson and others. Joffe’s newspaper clippings contain a selection of clippings relating to Prof. Peck, his undergraduate advisor, and miscellaneous clippings.

Agudath Israel Records, 1933-2008, bulk 1940-1947
” This collection consists of autograph signed letters, typed signed letters, postcards, telegrams, printed material, programs, newspaper clippings, and written public announcements pertaining to the Agudath Israel movement in America, Eretz Israel/Palestine, and Lithuania. Most materials are dated during the 1940s (wake of WWII). Most letters are addressed to Rabbi Aaron Ben Zion Shurin. The materials are mainly in Hebrew and English with some in Yiddish. Most materials concern the role of Orthodox Jewry in the wake of the Holocaust.”

Andrew Alpern Collection of Edward Gorey Materials
“A collection of original artwork, published books, printed ephemera, and branded merchandise by the writer and artist Edward Gorey (1925-2000), assembled by Andrew Alpern.”
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United Bronx Parents – A Commitment to Service

By Rachel Klepper

(Part II of II. Read part I.)

Founded in the 1960s by Evelina López Antonetty (1922-1984) as a movement for school reform, United Bronx Parents developed into an important grassroots social-services provider.

Over time, the networks and power that Antonetty built transformed into an organization that provided public health services to Bronx residents and advocated for solutions to issues that residents faced, including substance abuse, hunger, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. There are many reasons for these shifts, and UBP was certainly impacted by changes to neighborhood needs, local and national politics, and the nonprofit sector. The United Bronx Parents Inc. Records offer the opportunity to look to two internal factors that contributed to these changes: the staffing and management of UBP and its funding sources.

Executive director Lorraine Montenegro posed with a poster of her mother and UBP founder, Evelina López Antonetty

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United Bronx Parents – A “Community Grown Organization”

By Rachel Klepper

(This is Part I of a two-part story. Read part II.)

In 2018, the Lorraine Montenegro Women and Children’s Program Facility opened in a new building at 773 Prospect Avenue in the Bronx. With $12 million from New York State, this residential recovery center was built on the site where United Bronx Parents (UBP) began and worked for decades to improve the health and education of its community. The original building was called “La Escuelita,” and it was known in the Bronx as a hub for activism, community development, and social services. The new facility was named after UBP’s second executive director, Lorraine Montenegro, who died in 2017 in the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria. The RBML’s newly processed collection documents UBP’s path from its founding and the legacy that the new facility sought to honor.

Photograph of United Bronx Parents marching in a New York City parade, c.2000

In 1965, United Bronx Parents began as a grassroots coalition of Puerto Rican parents and activists concerned with the quality of their South Bronx public schools. Founder Evelina López Antonetty (1922-1984) brought her experience as an organizer and as a parent together to call for changes to an unequal and segregated school system. United Bronx Parents led workshops that trained parents to advocate for bilingual schools, more relevant curricula, and free lunch, among other demands. They called for “parent power,” joining the many Black and Latinx activists that fought for community control in the 1960s. These efforts led to the decentralization of the New York City school system in 1969. Other successes included the founding of the first bilingual public school in New York City, and a free summer lunch program that fed thousands of children. Continue reading

How to tame an opossum…and other childhood preoccupations through the Barnard children’s letters

In 1876, Sanford Curtis asked John Hall Barnard about his career plans, depicting the options of a naval officer aboard a ship or a man sitting in an office. His own plans took the shape of a detailed farm scene with animals and a hoe, a rake, and a pitchfork.

Processing collections according to updated archival standards gives RBML archivists the opportunity to discover anew our collections. In this post, Processing Archivist Celeste Brewer offers us insights into the practice of children writing letters during the Civil War-era. Historians typically foreground the writings and papers of “Great Men,” but as Celeste notes, paying attention to children’s words and ideas helps us see nuances in interpersonal relationships of the past.

With summer vacation here for most school-aged U.S. children, perhaps Willy Fred, Porter and John will inspire you to get your kids to put pen to paper instead of eyes-to-screen. 

“We have bows and arrows and we shoot the pigs away from the gate,” seven-year-old Willy Fred Barnard announced to his father on October 4, 1854.  This news opened the earliest in a group of letters written by children between 1854 and 1878, which can be found in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s newly processed Barnard Family Papers collection.

William Frederick Barnard (1848-1863) and his older brother, Augustus Porter Barnard (1847-1911), wrote letters to their father, John Gross Barnard (1815-1882) as soon as they were able.  These letters are unusual for several reasons.  First, that they exist at all; the Barnard children came from a wealthy family that valued education highly.  (Their uncle, Frederick A. P. Barnard, would become president of Columbia College in 1864.)  Willy Fred and Porter were privileged to be educated by private tutors from approximately the age of six.

The first letter from Willy Fred Barnard to his father, John Gross Barnard, about a visit with family at Niagara, New York.

Even the minority of young children living in the mid-nineteenth century who could both read and write—and had access to writing tools more permanent than a piece of chalk and a slate—had little reason to write letters to their parents until they were old enough to go away to school.  However, Willy Fred and Porter’s father was an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.  Their mother had died in 1853.  The boys lived in rural Maryland with their aunt and uncle, Sophia and William F. Brand.

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Collecting News | Obama presidency oral histories to be archived at Columbia

The Oral History Archives at Columbia (OHAC) is pleased to announce that it will be the sole repository of the official oral histories of the presidency of Barack Obama (CC ’83).

President Obama on the phone at his desk in the Oval Office with quote from President Bollinger about the value of oral history to understanding the presidency

From the University’s official announcement:

Starting this summer and over the next five years, the Obama Presidency Oral History Project will conduct interviews with some 400 people, including senior leaders and policy makers within the administration, as well as elected officials, campaign staff, journalists, and other key figures—Republican and Democrat—outside the White House.

The Obama Presidency Oral History Project also will incorporate interviews with individuals representing different dimensions of daily American life, whose perspectives enable the archive to weave recollections of administration officials with the stories and experiences of people who were affected by the Administration’s decisions. This project will also examine Mrs. Obama’s work and legacy as First Lady.

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Exhibition | Remaking the World: Columbians and the 1919 Peace Conference

If you’re enjoying PBS’ Women, War and Peace series, stop in to the RBML for our current exhibit, Remaking the World. The exhibit explores Columbia University’s connections to the 1919 Peace Conference. To be specific, the exhibit explores the role of men deemed significant to The Paris Peace Conference, also known as the Versailles Peace Conference.

poster of versaille hall and illustration of weeping angel

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New oral history collection available | Columbia’s LGBTQ Oral History Project

Newly available in the RBML’s reading room and oral history archives is a six-interview collection detailing the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ people and allies affiliated with Columbia University. Low Library lit up with rainbow colored lights

The LGBTQ Columbia University Oral History Project includes interviews with noted alumni and affiliates John D’Emilio, Tony Kushner, Robbie Kaplan, Ann Kansfield, Laura Pinsky and Dennis Mitchell.

Read more about the project on the Center for Oral History Research’s website.