Since it opened in 1961, Olin Library has held a variety of special collections — rare, unusual, or particularly valuable items — in addition to the regular circulating books that occupy most of the building on floors three through seven. Planners hoped Olin’s contents would be accessible and reflect, as an early publication noted, “the astonishing diversity and intellectual vitality of Cornell’s varied colleges and divisions.”
Architects designed the first floor to showcase two of the Library’s most unusual and valuable assets: rare books and the Wason Collection of East Asian materials. Other special collections were housed elsewhere: maps on the lowest level; the Collection of Regional History and University Archives (later Manuscripts and Archives) on the first floor; and the Icelandic and History of Science collections on the second floor.
By the 1980s, even Olin Library’s copious floor plan strained to hold its many materials, and planning began for a new library devoted exclusively to special collections. In 1992, the underground Carl A. Kroch Library opened as a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, secure facility. Kroch now houses all of the Asian collections and gathers rare books and manuscripts into the new Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Since 1987, a conservation laboratory on Olin’s lower level has provided conservation treatment and restoration of rare and unique materials.
Changes in information technology affect the disposition of materials in the library. Typing rooms, for instance, are no longer necessary. The large area once devoted to the physical card catalog now holds an information commons filled with computers, reference materials, and recently published, “New & Noteworthy” books. A media collection of audio recordings, VHS tapes, and DVDs now resides on the lower level.
Much of Olin is unchanged, however; the sites of the map collection and reference reading room are the same. And the book stacks continue to hold close to two million books, just as they were designed to do 50 years ago.