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University Seminars records, 1944-2012.

Summary Information

At a Glance

Title:University Seminars records, 1944-2012.
Physical description:170.21 linear ft. (389 document boxes, 7 record storage cartons); 17.81 Gigabytes (40,625 digital items)
Language(s): Material is in English


Material is into three series:


Scope and Content

The collection consists of the records of university seminars in various fields for each academic year since their establishment. A typical file will include minutes of the meetings, but there may also be supporting documentation such as correspondence, reports, or copies of papers presented at a meeting.

In 2003, then Director Robert L. Belknap conceived and over several years implemented the project of scanning 50 years of the pre-digital meeting minutes of the seminars. Over a half million pages, representing the materials from from the academic years 1944-2000 were scanned by the University Seminars and transferred to the University Archives for preservation. Subsequent additions up to 2012 were added to the digital collection in January 2018.

Series I: Minutes and Notes

The Minutes and Notes series includes minutes, notes, and supplementary materials for the University Seminars. A typical file will include meeting notes, but may also include correspondence and invitations related to any given meeting of the seminar or papers presented at a meeting.

Series IV: Digital Archive

Digitized materials cover 194 seminars for the academic years 1944-2012, and represent exact digital copies of paper originals in the collection, scanned in 2003-2010, as well as born digital content created since 2009.

Using the Collection

Access Restrictions

 This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least two business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

Electronic files are available in the Reading Room on a laptop where researchers can browse, keyword search, and view the records.

Restrictions on Use

The University Seminars Archive is available for research purposes in the Reading Room of the Columbia Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, subject to the policies and procedures applicable to the use of RBML collections. However, copyright in individual items in the collection may be held by the University, by individual participants and contributors, or by others. Researchers seeking permissions to use materials from the collection should submit inquiries and permission requests to the Director of the University Seminars, Robert Pollack, via email

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Columbia University Seminars Records; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Archives; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

Processing Information

Records processed 1996 ptl

MODS metadata records and full-text index for searching were generated by the CUL LDPD in 2013-2015. Metadata and digital files became available in the reading room via a web presentation system in December 2015.

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion October 19, 2012

Finding aid written in English.

    2012-10-19 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz.
    2015-12-02 xml document instance updated by Adrien Hilton.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Annual reports.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
College teachers.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Historical Note

In the nineteen thirties, Professor Frank Tannenbaum had discussed with Nicholas Murray Butler the idea of ongoing groups of Columbia professors and experts from the whole region to explore matters no single department had the breadth or the agility to study. Butler liked the idea as a quick way to mobilize the intellectual resources of the University about suddenly emerging problems, but World War II supervened and it was 1944 before his successor, Frank Fackenthal, approved the first five University Seminars. Three of these Seminars still meet: Peace, Religion, and The Renaissance.

The Seminars have continued to serve Butler’s purpose, but they have also become an intrinsic part of the enterprise Columbia does better than any great university in the world, the ongoing education of its own faculty. Most of this education takes place within the academic departments, but Tannenbaum was continuing a tradition of General Education in a Core Curriculum that Columbia had been developing for thirty years. The Contemporary Civilization and the Humanities courses are famous for the breadth they give Columbia undergraduates, and astonishingly unrecognized as a boot-camp where econometricians acquire sophistication by conducting rough and tumble discussions of Plato.

This tradition positioned Columbia professors to invent the interdisciplinary regional institutes that trained graduate students to handle post-war complexities beyond their departments, but also forced political scientists, economists, and literary scholars to learn from each other. Over the past two thirds of a century, the Seminars have offered more and more specialists from Columbia and elsewhere the chance to learn and discover things together.

When Tannenbaum died in 1969, there were fifty Seminars. He and his wife, Jane Belo Tannenbaum, left the Seminars a million and a half dollars in their wills, to be invested and reinvested as a dedicated part of Columbia’s endowment. Tannenbaum wrote a charter to “protect the spontaneity of the Seminars from an unstructured situation [in which] interference is inevitable, because the desire for general rules and uniformity is irresistible.” The Director of the Seminars was not to be appointed by the President of the University but selected and instructed by a General Committee, consisting of Columbia’s President, Provost, and the chairs of all the Seminars.

In the four decades since, the number of Seminars has grown to the eighty-four listed in this website. About half the Seminars that have been founded are still meeting, while half have merged, split, or dissolved. James Gutman followed Tannenbaum as Director from 1969 to 1975, followed by Aaron Warner, from 1976 to 2000, and Robert Belknap from 2001 to 2011, when his student Robert Pollack succeeded him.