By the Books

Long the hub of campus scholarship, Cornell’s libraries are as lively as ever

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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.”

Olin's Libe Café

Students working and relaxing on Olin’s popular Libe Café.Nicola Kountoupes (UREL)

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.”

Students at work in Mann

Students at work in MannJason Koski (UREL)

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.”

Grass installation in Mann

A soothing installation of grass in Mann in fall 2011.Mark Vorreuter (CHE)

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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