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History and Purpose

"the ideas of a great university and a great library are inextricably linked"
A.D. White, Cornell University's co-founder and first president

Cornell University’s founder, Ezra Cornell, had a vision for the new university of "an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." The university’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, was a bookish man — a scholar who loved the pursuit of knowledge and was an astute book collector. Together, they knew and appreciated the value and necessity of assembling a proper library for the students and faculty.

When Cornell University opened its doors in the fall of 1868, its library of about 18,000 volumes was temporarily housed in two rooms of Morrill Hall — the only building completed at that time. Earlier that year, President White had traveled through Europe seeking items for the university’s new library. Back in Ithaca, Willard Fiske, Cornell’s first librarian, worked to ensure that the university’s collections would be, above all, a practical reference library, openly accessible to both students and faculty members. The materials White and Fiske acquired covered almost the whole range of the humanities and provided the nucleus for most of the university’s great early collections. Later, White and Fiske would be among the first donors to give their personal libraries to Cornell, thereby enriching a number of collections that were already unparalleled in the United States.

Advancing the University's Mission of Teaching, Research and Outreach
Today, our collections are both rich and heavily used. Our 7.8 million print volumes see three-quarters of a million circulation transactions a year, and our over 80,000 current electronic serial titles see more than 5 million downloads a year. Our vibrant physical spaces receive about 4.5 million visits a year.

Expert librarians answer 85,000 research questions a year -- and build the research skills of Cornell students through 1,500 presentations. Librarians also play an active role in the classroom, teaching or co-teaching about 20 different courses.

As CUL anticipates the future, it is successfully using the latest tools and technologies to make its growing collections more readily accessible to users across campus, and indeed, around the world. At the same time, preservation and conservation efforts are taking place to ensure that key research materials will continue to be available to current and future scholars. First and foremost, the Library is a living, working, ever-expanding scholarly resource — a vital and integral component in the tremendous variety of educational programs and research projects under way at Cornell.