In March of 1903, two Cornell College Trustees, acting under the direction of President William Fletcher King, approached philanthropist Andrew Carnegie and convinced him to finance the construction of a library building for the growing college. The library at the time, which was located in a corner of Old Sem, had become too small to house the college’s book collection, which stood at approximately 25,000 volumes, mostly filled with reference materials and some current newspapers and magazines. The August 1904 Cornell College Bulletin noted the rapidly expanding collection of books, and an increase in demand for the use of the library made it a high priority to have the new library building erected sooner rather than later.
On September 13, 1905, the new library building was dedicated and opened for the college and the residents of Mount Vernon. Andrew Carnegie donated $50,000 (an increase from his earlier offer) for the construction of the building on the condition that it would be a joint town/college library, as he felt college-only libraries excluded the working public. The placement of the building was carefully selected to ensure the library would be accessible to both town and college residents.
The completed building stood two stories tall and was a rectangular 86 x 36 feet. There were several reading and resource rooms on all floors, large windows, and a stack room (hidden from view) where 70,000 volumes could be stored. A wide foyer welcomed visitors to the library, where they could opt for periodicals and reference materials on the eastern side of the building (complete with a reading room), or move west to a smaller room with materials for children. Upstairs was a similar layout, but contained books primarily for student and faculty use. Architecturally, the building features many elements characteristic of Carnegie’s philanthropic libraries such as steel-reinforced concrete and a brick facade. The stairway leading up into the main entryway was another example of typical architecture for a Carnegie building, as well as the traditional arch over the doorway.
In 1957, the old Carnegie Library was vacated in favor of the newly built Russell D. Cole Library, and remodeled to host the chemistry department, as it had outgrown the space it had previously shared in Law Hall. But in 1976, the chemistry department moved out and into the newly constructed West Science. The building stood mostly unused for almost a year until plans were hatched in late 1977 to renovate the old Carnegie Library to house the geology department as well as a museum of geology.
Today, the building formerly known as the Carnegie Library and the Chemistry Building is called Norton Geology Building, after William Harmon Norton, the first geology professor at Cornell who contributed his energy, time, and impressive collection of fossils to the college. Norton’s contributions were especially notable in that he was mostly self-taught, but still helped to rewrite some of the prevailing theories on Iowa geology, in addition to starting one of the first full geology programs in the Midwest.
The building opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 18, 1980 (Alumni Weekend), and was officially dedicated June 13, 1981. Geology classes are taught next to the Anderson Geology Museum, also housed in Norton Geology, where the public is free to enter, reminiscent of its era as the public library.