Uris Library Historical Tour: Arthur H. Dean Room

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The General Reading Room, now known as the Dean Room, is Uris Library’s most commanding interior space and its prominence is significant. While not the first library to contain such a space, architect William Henry Miller’s design reflects a major shift in how academic libraries functioned.

Previously, university libraries were essentially storage facilities open to faculty only a few hours per week. But Cornell’s library building was designed to accommodate a collection of 400,000 books and to provide a convenient way for people to access and use those books. Built into the natural slope of the site, no book in the library was more than 120 feet away from the service desk at the west end of the General Reading Room – the same place where today’s circulation desk is located.

Cornell may have had the first American university library intended for extensive use by undergraduates as well as faculty, thanks to the vision of its first University Librarian Willard Fiske. Cornell’s library was open nine hours a day, longer than any other college library in the country.  Hours were extended even further in 1885, when Cornell’s library, then located in McGraw Hall, became one of the first American libraries to be lighted by electricity.

The library may have been open, but books did not leave the building. From the beginning, the library was conceived as a non-circulating reference library. Only later after conducting a survey of other libraries in 1908 did Cornell agree to allow books to be borrowed by its faculty and students.

By then, the stacks were already becoming overcrowded.  Lack of adequate space for books and readers became a frequent source of contention over the next 50 years and these pressures were not completely remedied until Olin Library was built in 1961.

Renamed in 1962 for Harold D. Uris, a graduate of Cornell’s Class of 1925 and a Cornell trustee from 1967 to 1972, Uris Library was designated as the “undergraduate library,” so that these students would not have to compete with graduate students or faculty for resources, services or study space.

The Dean Room is named for Arthur H. Dean, an Ithaca native, Cornell alumnus, attorney, diplomat, United Nations delegate, and Cornell University trustee.  He and his wife Mary provided funds for the renovation of Uris Library and the building of Olin Library. Thousands of rare books and manuscripts have been added to the library collections as a result of their generosity, and to foster a love of books and reading among Cornell’s students, they also began the library’s first undergraduate book collection contest, which lasted from 1966 until 1989.

The Dean Room is now, as it has always been, a reading room where one can study quietly or take advantage of other traditional library services. It is also a hub of new activities. Card catalogs have been replaced by computers and wireless connections make access to Cornell’s digital resources possible here and throughout the building.

In the northwest corner of the room hang portraits of Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the University’s co-founders. They are joined by portraits of Cornell’s past presidents, which proceed in chronological order as you move counterclockwise around the room.

Elements of Cornell’s history are preserved in Uris Library’s architecture and art work. As you tour the building, we hope that you can appreciate Andrew Dickson White’s belief that: “the library is the heart of the university, ‘the culmination of all.’”