Once upon a time, Cornell’s card catalogue was king. In the pre-Internet era, those wooden drawers were the repository of knowledge about the University’s library holdings—and such a precious resource that Olin Library’s staff was instructed that in an emergency, they should save the catalogue even before the rare books. During the Sixties era of political unrest—when it was feared that the catalogue might be vandalized—library staff microfilmed every card.
Today, the card catalogue is long gone, and the University Library’s holdings are searchable online from anywhere in the world. And just as campus libraries have evolved, so have the ways in which students use them. While the digital revolution could have made such brick-and-mortar facilities as obsolete as index cards, the opposite has happened: at Cornell, the libraries are as essential as ever, and arguably even more lively. Olin—once, as former University Librarian Anne Kenney puts it, a “sleepy enclave” reserved for faculty and graduate students—is now the single busiest building on campus, and the library system overall sees upwards of four million visits a year. Long seen as vaunted spaces for quiet contemplation and scholarship, libraries have taken on a broader role, becoming vibrant hubs for socializing, collaborating, and more. “Libraries offer ways to break down isolating barriers to engage with others,” says Kenney, who came to Cornell in 1987 and led its library system from 2008 to 2017. “They invite and celebrate human interaction in this age of virtual worlds and disconnection.”
Kenney’s successor, Gerald Beasley, came to the Hill in August 2017 after previous posts at Columbia, the University of Alberta, and Concordia University. He likes to say that students think of libraries in two contrasting ways: as “cathedrals”—meaning that they want to be awed by the majesty of a temple of scholarship—and as “gas stations,” where they can quickly access the resources they need. He embraces this paradox, aiming to provide both types of experiences. “I want students to feel like they can come to the library for all kinds of reasons,” says the Oxford-educated Beasley. “There will be a time when they’re achieving their academic outcomes and that’s great, but there will be another time when they just want to get together with friends and have a coffee.”
Cornell’s twenty libraries boast a combined collection of more than 8 million volumes, encompassing a nearly endless range of fields, from astronomy to the classics, viticulture to Southeast Asian studies. The holdings of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections include curated materials chronicling such subjects as human sexuality, hip-hop music, Icelandic history, and witchcraft—not to mention one of five surviving copies of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And online resources are expanding rapidly. Cornell has participated in several ongoing projects to make books available online, scanning more than half a million volumes, and it hosts dozens of digital-only collections. To help students and faculty get the most out of these vast resources—in addition to the services of reference librarians—the libraries host regular workshops and tutorials. “The problem is not the volume of information, because there’s an overabundance of it,” says Beasley. “It’s the quality of that information and the ability to assess and analyze it. That, you still need to come to the library for.”