1961: A Newborn Library … and the World Beyond

By 1961, Cornell’s Main Library (now Uris Library) had reached the venerable age of 70. Its collections had long outgrown their space, with books stacked in the clock tower. Clearly, the university needed a new facility. When the John M. Olin Library opened in February 1961, it was among the first libraries in the country purpose built as a research facility. It soon became extremely popular, with 35 to 40 percent of the university community entering its doors on the heaviest days of use. When Olin Library opened, it had smoking rooms, male students had to wear coats and ties, and librarians knew that the enormous card catalog was the first thing that should be saved in the event of a disaster.

1961 was a year of high hopes, but it was also a year of conflict and crisis. On Jan. 20, the United States inaugurated John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who asked the world to “invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors.”

Kennedy implored, “Together, let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depth and encourage the odds in commerce. Let both sides unite to ease in all corners of the Earth the command of Isaiah to undo the heavy burden and let the oppressed go free.”

While the “terrors of science” persisted, Kennedy’s call to “explore the stars” took its first giant leap forward. Instead of encouraging “the odds in commerce,” however, West and East parted ways as perhaps the world’s greatest symbol of division emerged in Berlin. Within the U. S., challenges to racial segregation gathered strength as civil rights activists worked to “let the oppressed go free.”

And ­Ithaca was as “gorges” as ever: “10 square miles surrounded by reality.” To find out what that "reality" was, to show what the world was like in 1961, is the goal of the following exhibit.

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