History of Barnard College Library

Library Buildings, Past, Present and Future


343 Madison Avenue

The four-story brownstone that was home to Barnard's first graduating class did not include a library. Barnard College: The First Fifty Years notes that "[t]here were books, to be sure, that belonged on a few shelves in the front study room, but they could seldom be found there, and some were falling to pieces." Books assigned or recommended by professors would be brought in from their private libraries or checked out on the professor's card and left with the students for a period of months. The library at Columbia was open only to Barnard juniors and seniors; moreover, "there was a sense of being merely tolerated there, with a few study tables reserved in upper alcoves."

343 Madison Avenue, c1895


Milbank Hall, 3009 Broadway


Ella Weed Reading Room, Milbank Hall, c1905

In 1897, when the college moved to its present Morningside Heights location at 3009 Broadway, plans included a library, to be located on the second floor of Milbank Hall. Its initial incarnation was the Ella Weed Reading Room, with a core collection of 120 books. Designed by architects Lamb and Rich, the room has been described as being "lavishly decorated by Tiffany Studios, including an ornate polychromatic ceiling and cove, leather wainscot, and paneled wood double doors." Unfortunately, the only element of the Tiffany decoration which remains today is its "glorious fireplace, with its colorful glass tesserae." As early as 1902, a column in the Barnard Bulletin noted the inadequacy of its size. "The Ella Weed Reading Room, the only place in Barnard where quiet is supposedly enforced, is manifestly far too small to accommodate the number of girls who must use it." Two years later a Bulletin column exhorted students to attend an author's reading for the purposes of raising money to purchase 61 books and create a doorway between the reading room and an adjoining room. Dr. Canfield, referred to in the article as a "librarian at Barnard," is reported as being in favor of the plan and saying that "at present the Barnard students have no proper accommodations for studying." The expansion was completed in 1905, and Bertha L. Rockwell became its "custodian," managing a collection of 3,085 books. This reading room became the Barnard Library in 1908, with Rockwell officially designated its librarian. By 1910 the library expanded to four rooms, all in use and crowded. The Alumnae Committee was in charge of the library until 1912, when the college took over.


Barnard Hall

Ella Weed Memorial Library, Barnard Hall, 1937

The library's use continued to flourish, and by 1915 it was slated to move into half of the third floor of Barnard Hall. Three years later, Ella Weed Memorial Library was established. As early as 1921, the readership doubled over that of the past decade. By 1943, a space designed for 24,000 volumes was already filled past capacity with 47,000. This led to taking over a large, adjacent lecture hall. Science resources remained at Milbank, completely unstaffed; checking out books was based on an honor system.



Lehman Hall

An article in College and Research Libraries by Esther Greene, who served as Barnard's Librarian from the fall of 1944 until 1967, chronicles the reasoning and planning behind the construction of the Wollman Library in Adele Lehman Hall. As early as 1946 a report "strongly urging that serious consideration be given to providing a new library building" was submitted by Greene and endorsed by the faculty. However, it was a 1954 report by Professor Maurice F. Tauber, and the work of an ad hoc committee of twelve members that brought the new library to fruition. The work of these committee members included visits to new libraries, a review of the library literature on topics related to procedures and equipment, and attendance at a building conference. The research of these individuals was meticulous and eventually included collaboration with the architectural firm, O'Connor & Kilham, authorities on academic libraries (including those at Princeton, Amherst and Bryn Mawr).

Somewhat late in the process, plans were revised to include some classrooms and faculty offices by adding an additional floor, and in 1958 ground was broken in construction of a building with four stories and a below ground level. The library, on the first, second and third floors, encompassed 43,680 square feet and shelves for 150,000 volumes.  The building, formally opened in April of 1960, was hailed as "the first major addition to the campus since 1926." At the opening ceremonies, British economist Barbara Ward gave a lecture entitled "Ideas Can Change the World" which contained allusions to the threat of communism in addition to a connection between the opening of the library and "the freedom of a people." At the ceremonies Barnard College President Millicent C. McIntosh also assured donors that in their use of the facility, the college's students and faculty would work to "advance scholarship."










Artwork for the building's lobby was designed by New York sculptor Rhys Caparn (1909-1997).  A letter from Caparn to the librarian explains the imagery of the reliefs that adorn the stairwell, which are meant to suggest "Greek islands as seen from the air," while the stairwell's drawings "were derived from the shapes and movements of grasses."

A massive bronze interpretation of Barnard's bear mascot originally stood in the lobby, but was removed a few years later, possibly because it blocked the flow of traffic and access to the elevator.

Greene, writing in 1960, was pleased with the building, noting as its "outstanding architectural feature...its glass and terra cotta face which extends for two stories out over a wide loggia formed by the setback of the building's first floor." She commented that it gave the building "architectural distinction as well as providing what both staff and library users believe is excellent functional arrangement." A Columbia Daily Spectator column also expressed "more than a touch of jealousy that Barnard should have triumphed while Columbia is still involved in seemingly endless construction" and praised Lehman Hall's "air of newness."

Other reactions and reviews have not been as positive. The building is, according to the AIA Guide to New York, "modern in [its] stance but without reference to the context of street or campus." The grilled façade was conceived by solar architects Victor and Aladar Olgyay, "who somehow got their north arrow confused: the grillage faces slightly south of east, where there is negligible sun loading. They were, however, concerned more with architectural imagery than with its reality." Lehman Hall also has the dubious distinction of being included in the Mid-Century Mundane website, which defines its architectural coverage as "a category of vernacular building that uses a modern architecture vocabulary and contributes to a sense of place, but is generally not considered significant or as a candidate for preservation." In a 1978 article on the library in the Barnard Bulletin, one junior exclaimed, "the building itself is so esthetically unpleasing that you just don't want to go in there."


The LeFrak Center, Barnard Hall

In 2013, after much debate about the impact of new technology and the changing needs of students, faculty and library workers, it was determined that the best course of action would be to take down and rebuild the library building entirely. In preparation for the demolition of Lehman Hall, which began in March 2016, other spaces on campus were re-purposed to house the programs and activities that would be displaced. The bulk of this space was in the LeFrak Gym in Barnard Hall, which was divided into two floors, with the library on the first floor and the academic departments that had been in Lehman on the second floor. Most of the library's physical collections were sent to off-site storage, and were not available for use during the construction of the new building. However, about 20,000 volumes of the most frequently used books were sent to be housed in the Milstein Undergraduate Library in Butler Library on the Columbia campus. The library instruction lab, Barnard Reserves, the circulating Zine collection, the Media collection and core collections of the Barnard Archives were housed in the LeFrak Center, as were newly acquired circulating books. The Instructional Media and Technology Services (IMATS) department of the library relocated to Sulzberger Hall.


The Cheryl and Philip Milstein Teaching and Learning Center

The new building, known as the The Milstein Center, opened on September 4, 2018.  It has been designed to provide a diverse range of innovative and essential resources that will continue Barnard’s legacy for decades to come.


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Aligning Reference and Instructional Services with Technology Resources

In keeping with the exponential growth of technology, Barnard Library and Academic Information Services (BLAIS) has dramatically evolved in terms of the tools and services it offers, most notably under the leadership of Dean Lisa Norberg (2010-2014). It has also changed its model in recent years to integrate student and faculty computing and technology needs with reference - and research - as well as with instructional services. From the Language Lab of 1960 to the Empirical Reasoning Lab, opened in 2012 (now the Empirical Reasoning Center), a strong service orientation, targeted to the changing needs of its undergraduate student body, has remained constant throughout the Library’s history.  Since 2008 the library has had an instruction lab equipped with 18 computers where students are taught libary research and information literacy skills.

Early Audio Visual Services at Lehman Hall

The opening of the Wollman Library at Lehman Hall in 1960 made space available not only for a growing book collection, but for the technology of the day. Up to fifty students could be accommodated in an audio-visual studio to listen to records and tapes or watch slides, films and television. Those who wished to listen to music, poetry or drama records individually with ear phones did so at custom built record player tables in an open area. A pay typewriter was available in a typing room. The language departments operated a popular language laboratory on the ground floor.


Computers and Participation in the Internet's Early Days

A 1982 article by Library Director Elizabeth M. Corbett stated a new technology need: "I think the time is coming when we can no longer afford not to have access to computers." While Corbett was referring to a need on the part of librarians, her description of the projected use of computers suggests a benefit for library users, in terms of access and collection management. She makes the case for computers as "valuable tools in collecting and analyzing statistics of use for collection development and management purposes" and "also our window to the outside world of shared resources through bibliographic databases." According to Mary Ellen Tucker, Barnard's former Director of Academic Technologies, the Library did, in fact, acquire its first computers in 1982. Other milestones noted by Tucker include the publication of the Library's home page in 1994, and the presentation of a series of talks in the late 1990s entitled "The Scholar and the Web." From 1990-1994, the Library participated in American Memory, a seminal project utilizing digitized collections from the Library of Congress.

The Introduction of the Online Catalog and Databases

In 1984, CLIO, the computerized catalog of the holdings of the Columbia University Libraries, became operational. The following year, major electronic research resources were added to the system. Through Dialog Information Services, students now had access to more than 200 machine readable databases in fields including psychology, history, economics and political sciences. Students not only gained access to new databases which had not been available to them in print, they also gained the ability to search in a more efficient and targeted manner, using keywords and Boolean searches. The advent of machine readable databases and an online catalog led to changes in the services provided by the library. As early as 1990 Barnard Library began holding instructional sessions on the use of CLIO. Today, Barnard students have access to close to 2000 databases.

Academic Computing and the Road to IMATS

1984 also was the year in which Barnard students were given access to personal computers, through a grant from the Pew Foundation and a donation of twenty-five computers from IBM, which allowed for the opening of an Academic Computer Center. According to Barnard's Dean Olton, the computers were a necessity due to a new required course in qualitative reasoning for first year students, but would also result in more free time for students. A Barnard Bulletin column described the facility as "bright and futuresque, with the computers lined up on gray formica counters." Students were initially charged either $25 per semester or $3 per week to use the computers;  these fees were lifted in 1993 when additional changes were made "in an attempt to involve more Barnard students in the ACC and the computer opportunities it provides." From the 1990s through to the mid-2000s, Barnard's Academic Technologies department met the computing needs of students and faculty. The function of educational technology was removed from under the IT umbrella to become a unit that was part of the library. In the summer of 2011, further reorganization led to the creation of the Instructional Media and Technology Services (IMATS) department.

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Collections Reflecting and Changing with the Times

The Alternative Library

February, 1971 saw the launch of an "Alternative Library" on the second floor of the Wollman Library. Planned by two students who were enrolled in the Barnard-Columbia Experimental College and separated from the rest of the floor by colorful panels, the library was described by then librarian Robert B. Palmer as "a place in the library where students could relax, browse, read magazines and books of a non-academic but relevant nature." A photo montage included in the May 1, 1971 Library Journal issue dedicated to undergraduate libraries highlighted the space, the décor of which included rocks, shells, branches, balloons and tie-dyed wall hangings. According to the Barnard Bulletin, students sat on "tie-dyed covered mattresses" as they read "pamphlets, magazines, comic books, posters and books on experimental education, communes, ecology, sexual liberation and social change." The area was described by one of its founders as a "whole earth room" and materials included iconic 1960s counterculture publications such as the Whole Earth Catalog's Domebook One and Green Mountain Post. During a period when traditional modes of education were being questioned, the Alternative Library was an example of an attempt to serve a particular student community's interests and needs. (photo courtesy of Library Journal)


The Browsing Library

By 1974 interest in the Alternative Library waned,  and the room was converted to a Browsing Library. According to Palmer, the 200+ books designated for this area were "of immediate contemporary interest" and "not necessarily the kind of books that would be added to the general collection." The selection still reflected the cultural and political climate, and included titles such as The Cinema of Roman Polanski, The Strange Case of Patty Hearst, and Lesbian Nation. Students were encouraged to "curl up on a cushion and leave behind them the daily hassles of student life" in the alcove which now featured "a number of plants, including a thriving bamboo." In a departure from the library's classification system, books were divided into seven categories: feminism, looking inward, how-to, people, places, diversions and miscellaneous.

The Zine Library, Expansion of Lesbian Fiction, and the Debut of the LGBTQ YA Collection

The Zine Library enhances one of Barnard's strongest collection areas, Women's Studies. With a particular focus on Third Wave Feminism, the collection includes personal and political writings and art from urban women, especially New Yorkers, and women of color. Initiated in the summer of 2003 by Jenna Freedman (now the Director of Research & Instructional Services), it has grown from a $500 start-up to an archival and circulating library with an international reputation.

In 2009 the library decided to develop its holdings of literature by and about lesbians and better define its collection development policy for lesbian fiction. Publishing their findings in 2010 in the journal Collection Building, Freedman and graduate student Kam Yan Lee found that many lesbian works of literary merit were not reviewed by mainstream sources, and that selection and maintenance of a quality collection requires use of resources and award lists from specialists in the field. The collection now numbers approximately 350 titles, reflects current works, and is actively managed.

In the fall of 2011,a collection of LGBTQ Young Adult fiction also made its debut, the brainchild of Michael Elmore, Director of Collection Services. The LGBTQ YA Collection is the first of its kind of any academic library, and its establishment can be seen as representative of social change, occurring as it did, says Elmore, amid "this movement for full civil rights for LGBTQ people" and projects such as It Gets Better. The creation of the collection can also be seen as representative of the growth of YA literature, and the greater visibility for LGBTQ YA fiction specifically. While the selections are not determined by the curriculum, works in the collection might be consulted for research in the broadened women's and gender studies discipline, education, or for leisure reading.


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A History of Student Involvement in Library Planning and Procedures

In reviewing the history of the Barnard College Library, a theme of student involvement in discussions about library policies, procedures and changes quickly emerges.

As early as the mid-1920s a Barnard student library committee existed which was composed of the President of the Undergraduate Association, the Chairman of the Honor Board and the Vice-Presidents of each of the four classes. Librarian Bertha L. Rockwell explained in a 1928 Barnard Bulletin column that this committee was created in order to bring the library and the student body in closer communication. Updates on "any proposed changes in the administration of the library" and "its rules and regulations" as well as "suggestions from the librarian to the students and vice-versa" were shared at committee meetings with the librarian. In 1942 the Student Library Committee, in conjunction with Rockwell, established a "silence rule," according to which any student found to be talking excessively would have to "sign her name at the Loan Desk and leave the library for the remainder of the morning or afternoon." This practice was abandoned in 1944.

A 1960 College and Research Libraries article providing the background for the construction of Lehman Hall underscores that "[d]emocratic procedures at Barnard provide for a number of committees, both faculty and student, to take part in discussion of most issues." In the 1960s maintaining a quiet study atmosphere and other library policies were often discussed in the context of Barnard's Honor System. This system, in existence since 1912, was, and remains, a code enforced by the Honor Board, which over the years has varied in the number of student members and representation from each class. Library behaviors that were seen as infractions of the Honor System and discussed among students in the early 1960s included taking books from the library without signing them out, failing to return books that were signed out, and writing in books or removing pages. Another infraction mentioned was tampering with the reserve system, which originated with the Student Library Committee, and involved drawing numbers indicating one's place in line. Certain concerns, such as noise and library hours, continue to be revisited by each new crop of students to this day.

While a student library committee has not existed continuously since its first incarnation in the 20s, the Library Committee of 1972 was one of only a few select committees found to be effective in a 1972 evaluation of the college's Tri-Partite Committee System. Today, four students sit on a Student Government Association committee dedicated to the Barnard College Library -- the BLAIS committee. Its mission is "to assist in the planning of issues relating to the Library, academic computing, and information technology." The group meets three times per semester, and has studied questions related to Columbia and Barnard's shared course management system, the pros and cons of online versus paper versions of the course catalog, changes to Barnard's secure Web applications (eBear) functions, the course registration process, and laptop use in the classroom. In March of 2010 the library convened student focus groups to collect information for redesigning the library's website. More recently, groups have studied how students read, and in what format, allowing the library to gauge the shift to e-readers and e-books. Plans for the new library building were informed by research and user studies that included a participatory design project.

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An enlarged reading. (1904, April 11). Barnard Bulletin, p. 1.

Apfelbaum, T. (1974, October 31).Browsing room created library hours adjusted.  Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

Barnard’s Alternative Library. [photography spread]. (1971). Library Journal, 96(9), 1572.

Barnard stacks new service. (1985, April 17). Barnard Bulletin, p. 12.

Bear essentials. (1990, October 8). Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

Bear essentials. (1985, November 13). Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

The college year. (1902, May 19). Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

Corbett, E.M. (1982). Collection development in a liberal arts college. The Bookmark, 41, 27-31.

Currivan, G. (1960, April 6). Barnard library formally opened. New York Times, p. 26.

Da Cruz, F. (2012). Computing at Columbia timeline. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/cu/computinghistory/

Dickstein, M. (1959, November 11). Mixed emotions on Lehman Hall. Columbia Daily Spectator, p. 3.

Duer Miller, A. & Myers, S.  (1939). Barnard college: The first fifty years. New York: Columbia University Press.

Experimental college experiments. (1971, February 24). Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

Goss, E. (2012, February 29). Barnard planning major renovations. Columbia Daily Spectator, Retrieved from http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2012/02/29/barnard-planning-major-renovations

Greene, E. (1960a). Background activities in the planning of a new library. College and Research Libraries, 21(4), 269-273.

Greene, E. (1960b). Third time lucky for Barnard. Library Journal, 85(21), 4321-4323.

Kaplan, B. (1975, April 10). Browsing library expands. Barnard Bulletin, p. 3.

Kolowich, S.(2010). Libraries make it personal. Inside Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/09/28/librarians.

Koutsouris, K. (1978, April 24). Grubbing in the heights. Barnard Bulletin, p. 7.

Lecturer asserts freedom seen in library opening. (1960, April 7). Barnard Bulletin, p. 1.

Lee, K.Y. & Freedman, J. (2010). Odd girl in: expanding lesbian fiction holdings at Barnard College. Collection Building, 29(1), 22-26.

Lehman Hall, Barnard College, Morningside Heights, NYC. (2011, July 16). Retrieved from http://midcenturymundane.wordpress.com/2011/07/16/lehman-hall-barnard-college-morningside-heights-nyc/

Librarian as international man, The. (1973). Wilson Library Bulletin, 47 852-5.

Natarajan, V. (2011). LGBTQ young adult collection. Retrieved from http://library.barnard.edu/headlines/lgbtq-young-adult-collection

Platt Byard Dovell White Architects, LLP. (2004). Barnard college historic preservation master plan: Milbank, Brooks, Hewitt & Barnard Halls. New York: Andrew L. Dolkart. Retrieved from https://oneness.scup.org/asset/52951/Barnard_College_final_Vol_6_of_10.pdf.

Renzil, J. (1984, September 19). Academic computer center opens in BC Library. Barnard Bulletin, p. 3.

Richards, C. (1972, September 14). Report finds committees often ineffective. Barnard Bulletin, pp. 1-2.

Rockwell, B. L. (1928, December 21). Library notice. Barnard Bulletin, p. 2.

Rockwell, B.L. & Heyt, M.J. Library adopts new silence rule. (1942, March 20). Barnard Bulletin, p. 3.

Watrous, M. (1993, October 18). ACC undergoes changes, additions. Barnard Bulletin, p. 5.

Why mid-century mundane? (n.d.). Retrieved from http://midcenturymundane.wordpress.com/about/


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Researched and written by Dana Rosen-Perez, BLAIS intern,  Fall 2012, with Heidi Martin Winston, librarian

All images, except where otherwise noted, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.