In this article, we explore the history of the development of the Islamicate manuscript collection at the Columbia University Libraries (approximately 575 manuscripts across a wide range of languages, subjects, and periods). The story of the collection is one of checkered growth and engagement, and of serendipitous development. We focus on the key actors responsible for collecting activities, mainly donors and faculty, and provide biographical information as well as details regarding the specific contributions made. Three broad phases of development are identified: the birth of the collection (1880–1930); a period of growth: the Smith-Plimpton Islamic science manuscripts (1930–1950); Arthur Jeffery, the Burke Collection and the last gasp of orientalist philological research at Columbia (1950–1970). We try to account for the ebb and flow of interest in the collection within the larger scholarly context of Islamic and Near Eastern studies in the city and at the University.