The Archivist

February 25, 2013

Steve Novak, head of Archives and Special Collections in CUMC’s Health Sciences Library, is in love with the “raw stuff of history.” In the lower level of the Hammer building, he and archivist Jennifer McGillan oversee 27,000 volumes of books—as well as various letters and memorabilia.

The Archivist

After earning a bachelor’s degree in history in 1979 from Rutgers University and a master’s in history and archival administration in 1982 from New York University, Novak did archival work at Seton Hall University, the New-York Historical Society, and—his first taste of the medical world—New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. After a brief stint in an administrative position at the New York State Office of Court Administration, he spent seven years as an archivist at the Juilliard School.

Peek Inside the Archives

Dr Webster Under Glass

Novak came to CUMC in 1997. It was not only the beginning of his career at Columbia, but a resumption of his education in the history of medicine.  In the CUMC archives, for example, are the papers of George Huntington, for whom Huntington’s disease is named, and a 1543 first edition of “De humani corporis fabrica” by Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern human anatomy.

In addition to overseeing the existing collection, Novak contacts faculty and alumni whose papers he is interested in acquiring for the archives. Sometimes retiring faculty members, faced with the task of packing up decades’ worth of materials, call Novak instead and say, “Take it away.”  He waits until the collection is safely back at the Hammer building before beginning the slow, meticulous task of organizing and describing the contents.

Occasionally, Novak comes across the unexpected. Housed in the archives are almost 800 books from Sigmund Freud’s personal library. In the margin of one book, someone (perhaps Freud, perhaps not) wrote “Dumm!” (That’s German for “dumb.”)

Ann Rae Jonas