Sunday, 25 March 2012

Hip Hop, Rubber Ducks, and a Vibrator? Must be Cornell

Last week a group of library school students went on a trip to Cornell University, Ithaca.  I must say that I was surprised on many levels.  Coming from the background I do, with all its ancient libraries and 'do not walk on the grass' quads, the relaxed and open feel of Cornell was unusual.  As one of the Ivy League I had envisioned an American Oxford but that was not what I found...and not in a bad way.

McGraw Tower, whose bells peeled out Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence'

Mann Library

This is the Agriculture and Life Sciences Library and was a beautiful art deco building with a huge variety of reading rooms, study spaces and ceiling levels.  We had an informal chat with three of the librarians there and discussed how to get students involved in digital literacy and coming into the library to see what they have to offer.  This is a pretty innovative library and it was helpful to hear their experiences of trying to institute various programs and how they dealt with the success or failure.  Sometimes you just have to be whacky in order to get people's interest - they installed a rubber duck pond in the atrium in the hope that students would be drawn in and ask what was going on - they were.  A scavenger hunt grew round this idea and the librarians manage to spread their work that little bit further.



Their main message was trial and error.  They suggested that when you interview at a library, ask what the library has tried that has not worked and then you can gauge how innovative or open to innovation that institution is.

At Mann, they have tried to make the entrance as welcoming as possible with a circulation desk modelled on a hotel check-in desk.  The more you can make a library like a familiar space for students the more comfortable they will feel.  (They also did not have their reference desk hidden in the back corner as Bird does).  One touch that I really liked was the graduate study area, which allows graduates to work in greater peace.

Circulation desk


I was most excited about this tour since I enjoy seeing how other university's archives and special collections are handled.  The collection is housed in a beautiful building with extensive security in the reading room (a security camera is trained on each desk) and a large dedicated exhibition hall.  The department undertakes around 250 class presentations per year for faculty and several members of staff teach as faculty members as well, which broadens the reach of the collections.

Fine the Hip Hop collection on Facebook

The main collection that we discussed was the Hip Hop Collection, curated by Ben Ortiz.  This collection is focused manly on the emergence of Hip Hop in the 1970s and early 1980s and even I, who know nothing about Hip Hop, found the discussion riveting.  Ben is working hard with the collection to organise outreach activities and hopes to be able to take advantage of the likes of Skype to reach school children in areas such as the Bronx and Harlem.

An issue that is prevalent in Oxford and Cambridge is the stigma surrounding the universities and the unwillingness of certain people to visit exhibitions or be involved in the institutions.  Ben admitted that this has been an issue with Cornell since it is an unlikely location for a Hip Hop Collection - why is it not in the Bronx where Hip Hop was born?  There the items could be placed more directly into context but Ben is overcoming this with word of mouth.  A great benefit is the fact that many of the people who produced the material in the collection are still alive and can publicise the amazing work being done by Cornell to preserve the items for future generations. 

Oh yes, and we were shown a vibrator from the early 1900s to demonstrate the fact that words sometimes just cannot convey the horror of an item.

Ithaca Falls, well worth a visit

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