Patrons at the Olin circulation desk in 1972

Iconic Olin Library ‘Call Board’ to Get a (Literal) Glow-Up

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After shining as a numerical beacon above the circulation desk for decades, the sign will soon have a new life—as a clock

By Joe Wilensky

At the age of 63, Olin Library is in the midst of a major renovation of its first floor and basement level that will modernize its access and spaces. The building’s 1961 exterior—long likened to a giant IBM punch card—will remain unchanged.

And fear not, library fans: an iconic element—the numbered call board that has hung over the circulation desk since the building opened—will be given a new life in the refreshed space.

detail view of the Olin paging numbers sign with several numerals lit

“The call board is one of Olin’s most distinctive and beloved features,” says librarian Susette Newberry, PhD ’99. “The entire renovation team insisted on finding a place for it in the new design.”

Also known as a “paging numbers” sign, the Cold War-era display features light-up numerals from 1 to 100.

Measuring nearly 19 feet wide, a foot high, and 7.5 inches deep, it’s the most visible part of the library’s erstwhile access system.

1972 photo shows a library employee at a checkpoint that made sure everyone entering the stacks had a pass
Employees staffed checkpoints for the upper-floor stacks.

When Olin opened—and until well into the 1990s—it was a “closed-stack” research library: only grad students and faculty (and the occasional undergrad with a special pass) were allowed to go upstairs to browse and retrieve books and other materials.

To access items, other patrons had to fill out a slip at the circulation desk and would receive a number—yes, just like at a deli counter.

A behind-the-desk view shows some of the analog switches used to light up the sign’s numbers
A few of the sign’s analog switches.

The request slip was then sent via a pneumatic tube system to the appropriate floor and section, where student workers were stationed.

(While the system is no longer operative, some of the tubes still exist within Olin’s walls.)

Once the item was sent down to the main floor via dumbwaiter (also still extant), the patron would be alerted by the call board, which would light up the corresponding number.

The entire process—from request to retrieval to checkout—would ideally take under 10 minutes.

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View of Olin Library’s main floor in 1972
Olin’s main floor in 1972.

(Interestingly: when the tube system broke down in 1961–62 and undergrads were briefly allowed full stack access, grad students complained that they were poaching their favorite study spots.)

Once the stacks opened to all in the mid-’90s, the call board was used far less often—though it was still employed for special requests and to page certain materials.

During the COVID pandemic, it even enjoyed a temporary comeback, as paging requests surged during the many months of social distancing.

Now, the Olin renovation is spurring a new chapter in the life of the vintage device.

Library staff are partnering with students in electrical and computer engineering to repurpose the call board as a digital clock—making it a both a timepiece and something of a work of art.

Their faculty advisor, senior lecturer Joe Skovira, PhD ’90, has some relevant experience: in 2022, he helped students repair the electronics in the Bill Nye ’77 Solar Noon Clock atop Rhodes Hall.

Archival photo shows Patricia Kelly ’63 checking out books in her role as a weekend student assistant at Olin Library
An early-’60s view at the circulation desk.

While the call board’s original wiring will be preserved as much as possible, the incandescent bulbs behind each number will be replaced with multicolor LEDs controlled by computer.

Students are still designing the method by which the numerals will function as a clock; 1–12 would be used for hours and 1–60 for minutes, with dual colors likely used when a numeral is needed for both simultaneously.

The new clock is expected to be installed over the 2024–25 winter break, with the entire renovation completed by spring 2025.

A schematic shows the refurbished call board in the renovated Olin first floor, set to be completed in 2025
A rendering shows the sign's new spot on a renovated first floor.

“It will be both a tribute to Olin’s past as a closed-stack library,” says Jon Ladley, Cornell University Library’s director of facilities planning, “and an inviting beacon in the building’s next chapter as an open and welcoming space for all.”

Top: Olin’s circulation desk in the 1970s. (Vintage images by Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections; others provided.)

Published June 12, 2024


  1. Dolores Gebhardt, Class of 1981

    Catherwood Library was one big social scene for me, so Olin Library became one of my favorite study spots. There were a limited number of passes for undergraduates, so I’d get there the second it opened to snare one. Then I’d head for a carrel in the stacks and spend the day. I’d sneak a Collegetown Bagel in for lunch. If I wanted to take a break. I’d wander in the stacks and find a book that had nothing to do with what I was supposed to be studying! Peace, quiet and pure bliss!

  2. Nicholas Adams, Class of 1970

    Much loved? It was exclusionary. I did everything I could to get a pass…and remember the pleasure of exploring the stacks. And only irritation when waiting for my number to come up.

  3. Ann Cvetkovich, Class of 1988

    So glad to know this – I have fond memories of the call board – and I’m glad for the nod to Olin’s history as a closed-stack library. I basically lived there in the 1980s – as did many of my fellow grad students in English – because in the pre-digital era the only way we could access our reserve reading was through single copies of the books. And our assigned reserve room also became a gathering space that was central to our collective life both social and individual. I miss that aspect of library life.

  4. Stacey Merola, Class of 1994

    I worked as a page in Olin library as an undergraduate in the early 1990s and remember the board very well. At that point we weren’t using the vacuum tubes, so I missed out on that experience. Getting a request for a book on the 8th floor was particularly exciting since that floor was closed to everyone else at that point. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  5. Robert S Slocum, Class of 1977

    Well remember the sound of the tubes when getting the request as a Pager in the Stacks

  6. Marisa Brook, Class of 2009

    I never saw the board in use, and wondered for some time about its origins before I learned the history! Up till then, it had struck me as an intriguing mystery: to my 19-year-old self the (unlit) board seemed too functional to be decorative, but also too decorative to be functional.

  7. Gene Studlien

    I met my future wife, Susan Tillman, also a graduate student, who sat next to me at the large study table in the Psychology Graduate Study on the 7th floor. I was a computer science grad student and she was a history grad student. We have now been married 54 years!

  8. Sheila Out, Class of 1971

    During my first semester at Cornell in 1967, my work study job was in the Olin stacks in the evening. It felt dark, lonely and a bit scary up there. I tried my best to study during the long intervals between retrieving books, but I often fell asleep on the job, only to be startled awake by the loud thump of a request landing on my desk. Nothing like the fun volunteer library work I’d done during high school.

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