Digitized Past and Born-Again Future


Andrew Carnegie was fond of the motto “Let there be light,” seen here in this original drawing for a design for one of his bookplates. He also had the phrase carved into the Gothic arch of the entrance of the first library he funded, in his birthplace of Dunfermline, Scotland, in 1880. (Photo: Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)


New website provides an exciting portal into Carnegie Corporation of New York’s philanthropy from the 1870s to the 21st century

Jennifer Comins is an experienced hand at the joys — and not infrequent heartaches — of archival research. She is head archivist of the Carnegie Collections, which are held by the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University. The archive is a repository of the philanthropic foundation’s official records, from its inception and official founding in 1911 through its early, formative years and up to the present day. The collection also includes recordings related to the Carnegie Corporation Oral History Project, launched in 1966 and now including over 850 hours of testimonies of the Corporation’s officers, staff members, and grantees that provide invaluable information about the evolution of the philanthropic institution. (The Carnegie Collections also comprise the records of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.)

With a major grant from the Corporation, Comins and her team undertook the pressing task of preserving materials in the archives. While the great bulk of the Corporation’s records are in paper format, a small portion of the collection survived only on microfilm or microfiche, making their preservation especially urgent since both formats are subject to rapid deterioration. Just as worrying, some of the ledgers were in poor condition, and the  audiovisual materials were in outdated formats. “It made sense to digitize them,” says Comins. The archives also has to deal with born-digital records, as the Corporation continues to add digital-only grant records, digital “snapshots” of its website, and other nonprint materials to the Columbia collections. In the end, the digitization efforts encompassed 300,000 images of documents, including grant files, correspondence, ledgers, and annual reports, as well as 195 oral history interviews with Corporation staff, officials, and affiliates.

While the information contained in the archives may strike some as rather specialized, of interest only to those researching the ins and outs of one particular foundation, Comins explains that such notions couldn’t be more mistaken. “Here’s the thing. Carnegie Corporation of New York is a 100-plus years old. It’s one of the oldest grantmaking institutions in America, if not the world. So they have been involved in so many different things — over the course of more than a century — that it’s a really, really rich collection,” she says. “And thanks to the digitization project, you can go in there and find information about an organization people thought they knew about. But what they don’t know is that the Corporation had something to do with it, and in some cases was directly involved in its founding.”

“There’s no specific type of researcher I get,” Comins continues. “It could run from genealogists to educators to people looking at segregation to people looking at civil rights. It really runs across the board. You have accounts of fossil digs in there!” She gives the example of a curious researcher who discovered that Carnegie Corporation of New York was involved in rebuilding a Canadian university after a fire, King’s College in Nova Scotia, later assisting in its incorporation with Dalhousie University. “It’s an example that has nothing to do with donations, nothing to do with the study of philanthropy, but it was just a question from someone who went to college hearing this lore. And we were able to confirm the rumors,” Comins said.

While the project will continue into 2020, the web portal has recently gone live, allowing free access to the wealth of Carnegie Corporation of New York Digital Archive. The new digital research tools available on the site will allow access for people not able to make the trip to New York to pore over physical objects. There’s a definite aspect of fun in this type of “on-site” research, says Comins. “You stumble upon things that lead you in a totally different direction.” She contrasts this with web research, which while efficient, doesn’t quite allow for the same kind of happy accidents that can occur when you wander aimlessly through the library stacks and — lo and behold! — happen upon exactly the book that you didn’t even know you needed.

Yet there are other tools that digital sleuthing has up its sleeve. For example, the Carnegie Corporation of New York Digital Archive incorporates a state-of-the-art map feature, allowing researchers to view documents relating to Carnegie library projects and pipe organ donations across the globe, whether they’re in Joplin, Missouri, or Cape Town, South Africa. Comins explains: “So if someone comes in and says I’m interested in the Pittsburgh free library that Carnegie established, one can say, ‘Okay, let’s look for other libraries — whether public or academic — that received Carnegie funding in that geographic area.’ By clicking on the varying spots on the map, it will pull up all the details. It’s my hope that the map will facilitate a little more serendipity in the research process.”

Explore the Carnegie Corporation of New York Digital Archive