The Early Days of the University Library

The view from Goldwin Smith to the south end of the Arts Quad, ca. 1910.

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Left to right: Mark G. Dimunation and Elaine D. Engst. A Legacy of Ideas: Andrew Dickson White and the Founding of the Cornell University Library. Cornell University Library, 1996. (Cover); Andrew Dickson White on the Arts Quad, ca. 1910; Morris Bishop. A History of Cornell. Cornell University Press, 1962. (Cover).

“this library will be for generations...nay, for centuries, a source of inspiration to all who would bring the good thought of the past to bear in making the future better.”

— Andrew Dickson White, co-founder and first president of Cornell

In this 1910 photograph, Andrew Dickson White gazes out over the Arts Quad he helped design and create. In the background stand Boardman Hall (razed in 1959) and the University Library (now Uris Library).

Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, envisioned a great library as the heart of the university he helped establish. White amassed a personal collection of 30,000 books in his lifetime; he donated all of them to Cornell to form the core of its library collections.

Cornell University Library has always fostered access to its collections. Cornell’s first University Librarian, Willard Fiske, conceived it as a European-styled “non-circulating reference library.” Fiske also made it one of the first academic libraries in the United States to adopt a new and progressive idea: it was designed specifically for use by undergraduate students. At a time when most campus libraries were only open a few hours a week so that faculty could borrow and return books, the Cornell Library was open nine hours a day, longer than any other library in the country. First housed in two rooms in Morrill Hall, the Library moved its 15,400-volume collection to McGraw Hall in 1872. In this setting, it became the first college library to be lighted by electricity, allowing it to extend its hours further into the evening.

In 1891, when the University Library (now Uris Library) opened, it was widely regarded as the finest college library building in the country. White called it “a marvel of good planning, in which fitness is wedded to beauty.” By 1924, the Library held over 710,000 books and ranked fourth in size among university libraries in the country. Ten years later, a building designed to hold 400,000 books contained almost twice that number. Space for books, readers, and staff would remain a problem until the construction of Olin Library in 1961.

Continue on to Olin's Predecessor: Boardman Hall