University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks with a pile of books

Meet the University Librarian

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Elaine Westbrooks on what her job entails, her vision for the Library—and what she’s reading for pleasure these days

By Beth Saulnier

When Elaine Westbrooks became the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian in July 2022, she was no stranger to the Hill—having spent the better part of a decade in various library roles at Cornell in the 2000s. An expert in metadata (essentially, data about data), Westbrooks returned to Ithaca after stints at the universities of Nebraska, Michigan, and North Carolina. Most recently, she served as vice provost and university librarian at UNC, Chapel Hill.

What’s special about the Cornell University Library?

One is the amazing staff. The second is our collections. We have the best Southeast Asian and Icelandic collections in the world; we have a copy of the Gettysburg Address.

The third is our spaces. Of course, the A.D. White Library is truly special, but others—including Catherwood Library, the Fine Arts Library, and Mann Library—are also unique and iconic.

What does the University Librarian do?

On a day-to-day basis, it’s about advocacy—being a champion for what libraries are and the impact we have. People often think libraries are simple entities. But we’re buying and licensing information in hundreds of languages from thousands of publishers, making it available, and organizing and managing it all.

With technology, the bulk of our users don’t set foot in the library; millions of downloads come from students in their dorm rooms or faculty members in their offices.

With technology, the bulk of our users don’t set foot in the library.

Another important thing I do is set our vision as a research library—finding out what’s relevant for this campus. I talk to deans, provosts, students, and faculty, and the question I always ask is, “What kind of library do you need?” I’m in that listening mode perpetually, and I bring that back to the library.

Then there’s the administrative work—budgeting, fundraising, strategic planning—to make sure we have the resources to do the innovative things we want to do.

What is the role of librarians today?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been a librarian for 25 years, and the skills I hire for today are nothing like I used to. Now I hire librarians who do data visualization, data curation, digital preservation, evidence synthesis, data science—those titles didn’t exist 10 years ago. But fundamentally, librarianship is still about connecting people to information.

What’s the role of libraries in the digital age?

It’s more important than ever. The internet, social media—having all these resources available at your fingertips—has changed the landscape of what a research library is. Collections were the foundation of libraries in the print era, but now they’re not necessarily the primary thing that draws people in.

What really drives a library in this age is our services—the fact that you can learn how to visualize data, how to spot propaganda and misinformation, how to synthesize evidence to write a research paper.

University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks meets Library Assistant Amerdeep Passananti, Class of ’25, in Mann Library
Meeting Mann Library assistant Amerdeep Passananti ’25.

What are the main challenges facing Cornell’s libraries?

The biggest is the cost of research. Each year, more books get written and more journals get published, with more articles; what we call the “bibliographic universe” is constantly expanding. Before, we used to collect books and journals; now we also collect data, multimedia, social media, images.

We’re being asked to collect more things, and they’re more complicated than books. It’s challenging to preserve, steward, and curate that information for future generations. It’s always a moving target.

And going back to the cost of research: journal subscriptions are exorbitant, increasing at two to three times the rate of inflation. A journal we used to pay $6,000 a year for five years ago is now $10,000—and multiply that by the thousands of journals we license. That’s one thing that keeps me up at night.

What’s your vision for the future of the Library?

I’m still forming it, but ultimately, this library has to be about uplifting human beings and minds. We’re a force that allows students to go do amazing things, and allows faculty to do world-changing research.

The Library is at the center of intellectual activity; it’s the heartbeat of the campus. I want students to see how it contributes to their experience—how it helps them be better learners and more successful citizens, because they can tell good information from bad.

Ultimately, this library has to be about uplifting human beings and minds.

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What kind of atmosphere would you like to foster in the Library?

One of belonging—where students take ownership of these spaces. One of the most important things we do for our students is build confidence. We have a philosophy of, “we don’t do your homework for you; we teach you how to fish.” I want people to see themselves in our spaces—to think, “I worked really hard to get here; I belong at this university, and this library reflects who I am.”

Why are efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion particularly important in libraries?

One of the missions of libraries is to preserve history, knowledge, and culture for future generations. But oftentimes in the past, libraries and archives have centered certain groups and marginalized others. We want to balance that; we have a responsibility to create a more inclusive scholarly record.

What holdings in the Library do you particularly treasure?

I’m really fond of our May Anti-Slavery Collection. People often say, “it was common back then for people to own slaves; that’s the way things were.” The collection demonstrates that as long as slavery existed in this country, there were people fighting it.

University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks meets Library Assistant Justin Chen, Class of ’24, in Mann Library
Working with Mann Library assistant Justin Chen ’24.

Libraries nationwide have recently become swept up in the culture wars. Why is it important to make books openly available, even if some might find their content uncomfortable or even offensive?

Libraries are stewards of fact. Their job is to document humanity, in all its complexity—and unfortunately, humanity is not always good, comfortable, or nice. There’s something in our collection to offend everybody, I promise you; that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

People may say, “I don’t like this book.” Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it—but that doesn’t mean I’m going to pull it off the shelf. There are people using this book to do research, and it should be there.

On a personal note: when you read for pleasure, do you use an e-reader or do you prefer physical books?

Both. I love print, and I also love the convenience of e-books, so I can travel with 25 books. I have a completely irrational fear that I will run out of things to read—so I always have books stashed in places, just in case.

There’s something in our collection to offend everybody, I promise you; that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be.

You talk about books the way some people talk about keeping a candy bar in their backpack, in case they get hungry.

[She laughs.] I feed off the books.

Do you have a single favorite book of all time?

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. It’s an amazing love story, and really well written.

How about hobbies; do you have any you’re passionate about?

I love gardening, golfing, and bowling. I really enjoy cooking and sewing. It’s important to love your work, and I work hard—but it’s also important to take time away.

What’s on your nightstand or e-reader right now?

I’m reading Shine Bright by Danyel Smith, about the history of Black women and pop music. I just downloaded a book [At the Threshold of Liberty: Women, Slavery, and Shifting Identities in Washington, DC] by a Cornell faculty member, Tamika Nunley, to my e-reader. I have Michelle Obama’s latest book, and I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s novels all over again.

I listen to tons of podcasts as well. I like to mix it up. I’m a big music person, and I like sports. I recently read an interesting biography of Roberto Clemente; he’s a famous Pirates baseball player, and I’m from Pittsburgh. There are so many books out there, and so little time to read them.

All photos by Ryan Young / Cornell University.

Published February 22, 2023


  1. Jeffrey Martin, Class of 2024

    Amazing article and feature! We want to hear more about her journey. Reading this makes me more passionate and appreciative of books. I need to read more!

  2. Eugenia Barnaba, Class of 1975

    Cornell garnered a real gem when the decision was made to hire Elaine as University Librarian and bring her back to us. Grounded solidly at Mann Library in her early days at Cornell, she already championed the value and importance of solid meta data collection, and in my opinion, got a most worthy distinction of “meta data guru”. The intervening years have richly enhanced Elaine’s continual development and valuable experience as exemplified in grounding, development of concepts and all around vision found in this article “Meet the University Librarian”. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  3. Marisa Brook, Class of 2009

    Fantastic interview – absolutely fascinating. Cornell is fortunate indeed!

  4. Reuben A. Munday, Class of 1969

    I am so excited that Elaine Westbrooks decided to return to Cornell! She is so impressive personally and professionally.

  5. John Alic, Class of 1963

    Much praise to the library & the librarians & staff, all of them. I’ve not set foot therein since the mid-1960s but, still writing academic articles rely heavily on the internet access available to alumni. It’s precious & my only hope would be that it’ll extend at some point to e-books, since I too rely on them, when I can get hold of scholarly e-books, which can be difficult.

  6. Rebecca Tucker

    What a wonderful feature article. Cornell is extremely lucky to have someone with this experience, mindset and perspective leading such a crucial hub of resources as our libraries.

  7. Perry Jacobs, Class of 1974

    Does anyone go to Uris to study anymore? Straight breaks?

  8. Roger B. Jacobs, Class of 1973

    I spent lots of time in the libraries. Had a study carol in one. Not sure which library. Also did a litbof research in the law library. Maybe that all helped me in practice. Had four law books published and lots of articles
    Great part of being at cornell

    Roger. B. Jacobs. Class if 1973.

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