Ashley He / Sun Staff Photographer

Books pulled from the stacks of Olin and Uris Libraries now sit in the homes of graduate students finishing their dissertations.

April 23, 2020

A ‘Silver Lining’: Cornell’s Library Transformation and Hard Work

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As first-years packed their belongings, saying goodbye to Nasties and North Campus, graduate students were busy packing up the stacks of Olin Library — some with 10 shipping boxes at hand — in an attempt to gather books necessary to finish their dissertation.

“During that week, the circulation staff sent notes to everybody who had designated workspaces and said, ‘All you graduate students and faculty. If you have anything in the building and you want to keep at your home, let us know. And we’ll bring it to you.’ And they did,” said Susette Newberry, head of research and learning services and art librarian at Olin and Uris Libraries.

The library staff has been working hard to ease the challenging transition to electronic services for faculty and students who typically depend on the libraries’ physical collection for research.

One major factor in this transition has been the University’s membership with the HathiTrust Digital Library — an organization that now provides emergency temporary online access to half of the library’s catalog.

Newberry explained that the HathiTrust Library gathered scans of millions of books and journals for years, to create a massive virtual library, and even includes some works that are protected by copyright.

Normally, the Cornell Library does not have access to the in-copyright works, however, Newberry said that the digital library was able to make them accessible online while adhering to Fair Use Standards, which are laws that permit limited use to copyrighted material.

“In a very, very short amount of time, they [the HathiTrust Library] were able to come up with a system for users to be able to check out those books [the in-copyright works] and use them online in a way that really abides by the Fair Use standards,” Newberry said.

The library has also been taking full advantage of the free offers made by many publishers like Project Muse, ProQuest and JSTOR. Librarians have compiled a guide for these sources, which includes books made available by the publishers, accessible through the Cornell’s Library Catalog.

“[W]e put another almost 70,000 records into the Cornell Library from a Dutch publisher called Embroider,” Newberry said. “But it’s like all the time, there’s more and more and more records being added.”

Newberry said the process of working with publishers and transferring material into the library catalog is no easy process.

“So you tend to think, ‘Oh, it’s electronic. It happens magically, you know, the publisher just flips the switch,’” Newberry said. “That’s not the case. There’s a lot of hard work that happens behind the scenes. They have been working so hard.”

Librarians have also been taking requests for books, working one-on-one with undergraduate and graduate students to provide the best possible access to the materials they need.

The library continues to provide 24/7 virtual research help, but now students have been reaching out at a far greater rate.

“The rate at which we have had chats has … basically doubled, and we’ve done a lot of email references as well,” Newberry said.

In addition to books and journals, some students still need laptops. The library started a Laptop Loan Program, which sent 32 laptops from Olin Library to undergraduate and graduate students across the country since the first week of April.

Simeon Warner, the associate University librarian responsible for the library’s information and technology, has been coordinating this process with Public Services, the IT Staff and the Shipping Staff, who have been working with students via email.

Warner also coordinated the process with Lisha Nishii, the vice provost for undergraduate education, to share the program with other administrators and colleges at Cornell.

“We quickly understood that we had a pool of laptops available that we didn’t think should stay locked up in closed buildings,” Warner said. “Obviously, whatever we can do to help with the University’s mission of supporting remote teaching is something we wanted to do.”

Warner said that the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic will inevitably affect the way the University depends on virtual and electronic systems.

“It’s certainly a time of change and there are potential silver linings… I think one of the things that will happen is that the students and the faculty will change their habits as well,” Warner said. “My expectation is there will be a shift toward perhaps slightly greater use of electronic resources when there’s a choice between electronic or physical access even when we come back to campus.”