Discover the World’s Largest Architectural Library: Columbia University’s Avery Library

On 06 November 2020, by Bernard Zirnheld

The Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University is the world’s largest architectural library, a collection that continues to grow though important acquisitions each year.

Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University

Founded in 1890, the Avery Library typifies the elite patronage that defined New York City institutions of the Progressive Era. Named for Henry Ogden Avery, son of a prominent international art dealer, the library was founded to receive the papers and books his family donated to the university upon his early death from tuberculosis. Avery was part of the first generation of United States architects whose education and practice resembled those of architects today. These were the men who established courses of architectural study at the country’s major universities that were modeled on that of the Paris Ecole des Beaux-Arts. They also moved to differentiate the architect from engineers and journeyman builders by creating professional organizations like the American Institute of Architecture and the Architecture League of New York.

Elevating Standards of American Architecture
One of the principal means of marking professional distinctions was an insistence on architecture as an artistic rather than a purely technical or commercial endeavor. Knowledge of the monuments and theoretical traditions of Europe was central to the cultivation of taste that would distinguish the architect from a mere builder. Henry Avery was a close friend of William Robert Ware, founder of the architecture school at Columbia University, and the Avery Library was created to offer burgeoning practitioners the resources that would guide them in elevating the standards of American architecture.
That project was imbued with social as well as aesthetic ambition. The Avery Library’s foundation echoed the ideals of the City Beautiful Movement, which joined architects and social reformers in an effort to ease social tensions by reshaping cities into salubrious, well-ordered, and aesthetically pleasing environments. Indeed, the firm McKim Mead and White, proponents of City Beautiful, designed the library’s current home in 1912.

Inuit sculpture in the process of being documented for the Avery Arts Properties online databaseCourtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine A

Inuit sculpture in the process of being documented for the Avery Arts Properties online database
Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University

The Beginning of a Sprawling Collection
The initial bequest of Henry Avery’s parents was comprised of their son’s professional drawings, projects from his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as well as his entries to twenty-five competitions for public monuments in the United States (including a project for the base of the Statue of Liberty). More importantly, the Avery bequest included 200 volumes on architecture, archaeology and the decorative arts, with a $30,000 endowment for the purchase and binding of further materials. These were to be selected by their son’s mentor, architect and critic Russell Sturgis, in consultation with the head of the architecture school and the university librarian. From that initial donation in a young architect’s name, the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library has grown into a sprawling collection of books, drawings, archival materials, and ephemera; the largest concentrated holdings related to architecture in the world.

The Collection
The Avery Classics Collection now encompasses 40,000 printed volumes ranging from the earliest, a 1485 edition of Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, a principal text of Renaissance aesthetics, to twenty-first century artist’s books. In addition to that core collection of rare books, the general research library holds 360,000 printed titles and 1,900 serial publications focused on architecture and allied arts from all over the world.

The Avery Library Drawings and Archives Department is made up of 900 separate collections treating nineteenth- and twentieth-century US architecture, with a particular focus on New York City. The collections include artifacts of clear aesthetic interest such as drawings, but also office administrative archives that document the more banal aspects of architectural practice. The Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes offers a particularly innovative means of documenting the built environment, with illustrated business forms and stationery that feature the commercial architecture that lined the streets of 350 nineteenth-century US cities and which long ago succumbed to urban development. Undoubtedly, the most significant recent addition to the Drawings and Archives Department was the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive, acquired in 2012 by a joint purchase with the New York Museum of Modern Art. The Archive expanded the library’s already significant holdings of this important American architect by nearly 11,000 additional items ranging from correspondence to architectural models, to films, drawings, and publications.

Avery Arts Properties online databaseCourtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University

Avery Arts Properties online database
Courtesy of Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, at Columbia University

A Commitment to Research
The Avery’s commitment to research extends well beyond its walls through the management of the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals. The Index was inaugurated in 1934 by architect, historian, and Avery Librarian Talbot Hamlin. It is a weekly compendium of articles published on architecture, urbanism, landscape architecture, archaeology and historic preservation and remains a crucial tool for research in those fields. More recently, the Avery Library has begun exploring the potential of twenty-first-century digital librarianship with the Serlio Digital Project. Founded in 2018, Digital Serlio extends the long tradition of research on Sebastiano Serlio at Columbia, inspired by the library’s acquisition of his unpublished manuscript On Domestic Architecture in 1924. The Project facilitates scholarship and teaching on this important Renaissance theorist by serving as a central access point for digitized manuscripts and imprints that are scattered in libraries all over the world, and by convening and posting the proceedings of digital symposiums that diffuse the latest related scholarship.

Art at Avery
Finally, the Avery Library oversees the vast collection of artworks held by Columbia University. The result of centuries of random gifts, inaugurated by a donation of silver by King George II, the collection far exceeds the university’s capacity for display. The 10,000 objects largely circulate through loans to major exhibitions and through a blog designed to publicize the collection. Avery holds the largest collection of drawings by Florence Stettheimer, 2,500 Ancient Near Eastern and East Asian sculptures of the Sackler Collection, and an important collection of US photography. As the steward of the University’s public sculpture, the Avery is actively contending with contemporary debates of public commemoration initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Created with the intention of guiding the future through architectural design, the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library has grown into an incomparable treasure house. The institution continues to shape and serve scholarship through innovative collection and access strategies that will ensure its importance for generations to come.

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