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.”
The fact is that Cornell’s libraries have never stayed the same for long. There was a time when allowing students to check out books was unheard of; it wasn’t until almost a decade into the twentieth century that materials began to circulate. By 1872, the University Library, then located in McGraw Hall, was open for a whopping nine hours a day—longer than any other library in the country at the time. When electric lights were installed in 1885, it could finally remain open after dark. “The number of readers in the evening has not been large,” Cornell’s then-president Charles Kendall Adams noted in his annual report, “but it has been sufficient to encourage the Library Council in regarding the experiment as successful.”
Now, many libraries on campus are open into the wee hours of the morning—some even twenty-four hours a day. And while alums from earlier decades might be shocked to hear that today’s students can eat and drink in the stacks, current Cornellians would be equally surprised to learn that smoking was once allowed in certain library spaces. The introduction of cafés in several libraries was met with outrage from some who feared materials would be damaged by spills and stains—but they’re now among the most popular destinations on campus.
Elaine Engst, MA ’72, the University’s archivist emerita, notes that the system has been crunched for space “from almost the very beginning.” Back in the Fifties, excess books had to be stored in the Clock Tower—eventually spurring construction of the Library Annex, located at the edge of campus near the apple orchards. In recent years, to free up space for computer stations, additional study areas, and other resources, many of the less-frequently circulated books have been moved to the annex and can be recalled through the library’s online system. “Libraries evolve with the times,” says Kerry Mullins ’18, an agricultural science major who has been a student employee at Mann for three years. “That’s why they’re staying relevant.”
On the Hill, the individual libraries reflect the varied interests of the students they serve. (As Beasley observes: “Students will find the perfect spot for themselves in a library that might have nothing to do with what they’re studying.”) Uris, for example, remains filled with physical books and is popular for students seeking a quiet nook. Across campus, Mann Library—affectionately dubbed “Club Mann”—is known for its social and bustling atmosphere. Libraries like Engineering and Physical Sciences, which house their entire collections online or off-site, provide students with reference librarians and spaces for solo or collaborative study. “When you walk into a library, the distractions of your apartment and other places on campus aren’t there,” says Mullins. “For a study space alone, it’s vital.”
Last fall, Mann opened Cornell’s first “makerspace,” an area dedicated to building and creating anything from a podcast to a poster to a scarf. Dubbed “mannUfactory,” it offers such high- and low-tech tools as a large-format printer, a button maker, a virtual reality room, hammers and screwdrivers, computers loaded with prototyping software, sound and recording equipment, 3D printers, knitting needles and yarn, sewing machines, and even Legos. While many of these tools are already available on campus, they’re often affiliated with particular departments, and students need permission to use them. In the new facility, all Cornellians can utilize the space, attend workshops, or get one-on-one tutoring in how to use the gear. “People tend to focus on the equipment with makerspaces, but what’s really important is the community,” says Camille Andrews, one of the Mann librarians heading the project. “The idea is bringing people together to work on things, to play, to experiment, to learn from failure, and to innovate.”
During exam weeks, the libraries have been known to go above and beyond to provide some TLC to stressed-out students, offering amenities like free snacks, coffee, and ice cream in the lobby. On several occasions, sections of live grass lawn have been installed, on the principle that contact with nature would boost morale and promote relaxation. Therapy dogs sometimes visit; a llama has even been stationed in the Law Library lounge. “Libraries understand that their role extends beyond being knowledge repositories,” says Associate University Librarian Oya Rieger, PhD ’10. “They are a part of creating a nurturing community.”
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