Two Columbia Libraries

By ssheer

For my field observation, I went to two of Columbia University’s eighteen libraries, Butler and Lehman. Butler is Columbia’s history and humanities library while Lehman is a digital center for all forms of spatial data.
First I went to Butler, which has six floors and contains about 3 million volumes. It serves mostly the Columbia community but is also open to New York University students and faculty and to select New York Public Library card-holders through a program called Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI). MaRLI allows any graduate student NYPL card-holder doing in-depth research to apply for a special card that not only allows them to take home books from the NYPL’s research libraries but from Columbia and NYU’s libraries as well. NYPL card-holders can obtain MaRLI status “by demonstrating that they have exhausted the resources available through NYPL for their projects and need sustained access to the resources of the three institutions.” There is also a Metro program that allows New York metropolitan public library card-holders who cannot find a particular book anywhere else to check it out from Columbia. Columbia University has the fourth largest purchasing expenditures 2011-2012 of any research library in the country.
I interviewed the Butler reference librarian and watched him help a patron. I found out that he had his M.L.I.S. from UC Berkeley and that he was able to get a job as a librarian at Butler because he already had a Ph.D. in English. The librarian told me that sometimes Columbia hired librarians who didn’t have M.L.I.S. degrees, which was an unusual practice for libraries.
The patron I observed him helping was a student at the New York Theological Seminary who needed to know for her thesis paper how much money the government spent on prisoners at Riker’s Island. The librarian looked on the website of the Justice Department for statistics but was unsure where to find what the patron was looking for; he then called another Columbia librarian, who referred him to a third Columbia librarian who was a specialist in government statistics. He gave the government statistics librarian the patron’s e-mail so that she could send her the information later as she was unable to see her right away. Over the phone the government statistics librarian said that the relevant information could be found under the New York City Department of Corrections.
Patrons can write to one of Columbia’s subject specialists with questions the reference librarian is unable to answer. The specialist librarian can either answer their question by e-mail or arrange a meeting for an individual consultation, a service open to both graduates and undergraduates. Butler also includes a digital humanities center that helps patrons with scanning and other software issues. At Avery, Columbia’s art library, there is no reference desk, only a circulation desk which will contact the on-duty librarian with a patron’s question.
After speaking with the reference librarian at Butler I went to the Lehman library, which supports spatial data research for all of Columbia. Lehman employs different specialist librarians to find and manipulate data sources. The librarians must know the GIS software applications that work with express spatial data. Among the librarians at Lehman are the data librarian, who helps with statistical combinations, the government information librarian, the journalism librarian, the business data librarian and the social sciences specialist. The model at Lehman is to bring together specialized consultants in a high-quality laboratory environment. The librarian I spoke to has an M.A. in information science from the University of Texas, Austin and another M.A. in geography from Hunter College; he was also pursuing a Ph.D. Most of the consultants at Lehman have M.L.I.S. degrees, but sometimes the library will hire people with different advanced degrees. Job openings at Lehman are very tailored. There is currently an opening for a data services and emerging technologies librarian, the closest thing Lehman has to an entry-level job. The library would consider hiring a recent graduate from an M.A. program, someone with either an M.L.I.S. or a Ph.D. in one of the social sciences. For that particular position the library would prefer someone at the beginning of her career who has worked in a library environment for a couple of years. The position requires someone who will provide broad-based research support and create programming and support for a wide range of tools. She must be familiar with quantitative research tools and have an aptitude for learning and staying current with a very wide range of emerging technologies. The job opening was posted in the spring and still has not been filled because the library is looking for just the right person; the library is going to repost the job.
The biggest users of Lehman are Columbia graduate students, followed by Columbia faculty and undergraduates. The library also works on a limited basis with students from other institutions. Lehman’s primary purpose is to support quantitative social science research and provide methodological designs for this research. The library does a lot of work with Columbia Teachers’ College helping the students there to find information on different school systems, catchment areas and community studies.
Lehman contains resources on real estate and buildings which can be used to research different neighborhoods. One such application is a “heat map,” or crime map, of Upper Manhattan. Another researcher requested business and census data for Canal Street near Chinatown. On a very different note, one patron needed data for an analysis of renewable energy potential in the Central African Republic.
Both the Butler and Lehman resources provide vast resources for researchers lucky enough to have access to them. Lehman in particular works hard to keep up with the latest technologies in order to facilitate high-quality research. As history and humanities are my main academic interests, I would love to one day work at Butler.

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