Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscripts Library houses the principle primary source collections of Columbia University. The Library is home to 500,000 printed books and 14 miles of manuscript collections.
Internship Spring 2012
Hanan Ohayon: This past semester I interned at Columbia University’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library under the supervision of the Head of Processing Carrie Hintz. When I first met Carrie she asked me what I was interested in, and I said, ”well, maybe photographs, for a change of pace.” She responded by giving me an incredibly meaningful and challenging project of photographs of student protest and activism at Columbia University made mostly during the student strike, or Columbia Crisis, in the Spring of 1968.
Before getting to the protest images I processed a tiny collection of color photographs taken of poet Gregory Corso by longtime friend Peggy Biderman. They were interesting, and excellent to learn on.
Carrie showed me how to put the prints back in their original sequences and groupings and to describe them using the information found on their backs and in the pictures, and through outside research, including into the Corso Papers at the RBML, where I ran into a letter handwritten by Jack Kerouac. I also learned to use my eye a lot.
The photographs were not terribly compelling—Corso had seen better days, and Biderman was not a great photographer, or really a photographer at all—but I learned a lot and wrote my first finding aid. In the end I was able to appreciate the prints for their informational value and the way they provide a visual record of a relatively obscure period of Corso’s life, while relating to other RBML collections.
The remainder of my time was spent working with photographs of student protest and activism made during and after the Spring 1968 student strike and campus occupation. I processed seven collections containing over 7,000 negatives, slides and prints, with related text documents and film, each of which became its own subseries within a new, Photographs, Negatives and Film series of the University Protest and Activism Collection.
Five of these collections contained the work of student photographers made primarily for university publications including the Spectator and the Columbian yearbook. Some of these images were published and disseminated widely in the Spring of 1968, entering into the iconography of the event and era. They were collected by documentary filmmaker Paul Cronin for use in his film, A Time to Stir, and deposited at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library between 2008 and 2009.
Much of my time was spent arranging and describing a box of about three hundred 8 x 10 inch black and white glossy prints, and related documents including arrest reports, belonging to John C. Gardner, Director of Buildings and Grounds. The prints contain compelling, poetic images of events on campus in Spring 1968, including many images of students standing at the window ledges of occupied buildings. Many of them appear to have been made by Manny Warman, who was Columbia’s official school photographer for 37 years.
I used markings from the prints to reestablish original sequences and order, and to help identify time, place and significant individuals contained in them. A small number of the prints contain very small white rectangular stickers identifying students by name and class year. Despite their use, or misuse, I immediately sensed in them an expression of sympathy, and little aggression, amidst the chaos and disorder.
I received excellent training in a particular style and approach to processing and interpreting archival collections that is above all highly flexible, works and makes sense to me. I also developed a familiarity with the medium of photographs in archives, and an understanding of the way in which they “talk to” and are entwined with related texts.
I felt the intrinsic importance of the materials and their connection to the university every time I walked onto campus, looked at the buildings and students, and then looked at the pictures from 1968 and 1969 and saw the same buildings and similar looking students. In the process, I learned much about a subject I had not heard of previously.
The experience put back into perspective for me what sometimes gets lost, which is that the past is not important nor is it primarily accessed through the paper, plastic, objects or images we have left over from it. The past lives in the present, through a million different people and things.
Documents and objects, including photographs, do have evidential and cultural value, and this lesson was powerfully brought home to me this past semester. Photographs are primarily important for the internal and external changes they document, and the way they help us to communicate information and emotion across time and place.
Click here to view a Flickr set of photographs inspired by my internship experience at Columbia and the RBML this past semester.
Internship Spring 2011
Alison Lotto: working with the Processing Archivist, Carrie Hintz, to process a number of small collections. So far, they have been 20th century faculty papers, but I will be working on various manuscript collections.
This semester I worked as a processing intern in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia. Two of the collections I worked on were the papers of former Columbia faculty members. These types of papers have a lot of specific issues, and make you think about how you put a person’s life work in an archive without filling the shelves with research and data. The third collection I worked on, the Mike McGrady papers, were on a totally different subject matter, and very entertaining.
In 1969, Lyle Stuart Inc. published a book entitled Naked Came the Stranger. Initially, it was only a moderate success, but after only a few weeks rumors began that the author Penelope Ashe was perhaps not exactly what she seemed. Most reviewers gave it terrible reviews, but the only reviewer who thought there was something unusual about the book was William Trotter at the Charlotte Observer.
By August, the truth behind the book came out. Three journalists at the Long Island newspaper Newsday, including Mike McGrady, decided to see if they could write a book that was as good as the Jacqueline Susann novel that had recently topped the best-seller list. They decided to send a memo to all of the journalists at Newsday proposing that they each write a chapter in the book. The specific instructions were that the chapters should be very poorly written, and needed to have as many dirty scenes as possible. McGrady and Harvey Aronson edited the manuscript and had it published. The novel tells the story of Gillian Blake, who discovers her husband is cheating on her and decides to end all of the marriages in the neighborhood. After many “dirty scenes,” pools, dentists, mobsters and a number of deaths, the Blakes decide to leave the town with all of the marriages in their wake. After the hoax was exposed, the book became a best-seller, was turned into a paperback and was eventually made into a movie.
Processing the collection was really interesting, because it is impossible not to read a collection that is full of ridiculous stories. It was easy to arrange because it is only two boxes, but the description was actually difficult. There have been a number of research requests at Columbia for the collection, so hopefully it will get even more use in the future.