A native of Eden Valley, Minnesota, Stephen McCarthy received a bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Before coming to Cornell, he served as the assistant director of libraries at Columbia University and director of libraries at the University of Nebraska. He was also the president of the Nebraska and the New York Library Associations.
Stephen McCarthy came from Columbia to become Cornell’s fifth Librarian in 1946. His administration marked a period of expansion and reorganization for the Cornell library system. During McCarthy’s tenure, Cornell became one of the top research libraries in the country. The staff grew from 70 to 323, while total annual library expenditures increased from about $360,000 to nearly $3.7 million. Some 170,000 volumes were added each year under his administration, compared with about 33,000 annual additions in 1946. Cornell Library’s total collections reached three million volumes by 1967.
Under McCarthy, Cornell Library acquired collections of James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and Jonathan Swift. The library also received the Hull Collection of Braziliana, the Adelmann Collection on the History of Embryology, and the Noyes Collection of Americana, which included letters of all the presidents and a copy of the Gettysburg Address handwritten by Abraham Lincoln.
College and department libraries were transferred to the University Library and brought under a single administration. Stephen McCarthy was named the director of the newly unified Cornell University Libraries, coordinating the work of the sixteen separate libraries on campus.
In 1948, McCarthy initiated a massive reclassification project to change from the Harris to the Library of Congress classification system, an effort that would take more than twenty years. He worked to establish Cornell’s History of Science Collections, and to develop its area collections, including the Echols Collection, the premier Southeast Asia collection in the world. In 1952, the University Archives was officially established and the Rare Book Department created. That fall, Mann Library was completed, consolidating the staff, budgets, and collections of the college libraries of Agriculture and Home Economics.
Perhaps McCarthy’s greatest achievement as University Librarian was the planning and construction of the John M. Olin Library. The building was officially dedicated on October 10, 1962, along with the newly remodeled University library, which was renamed Uris Library and devoted primarily to undergraduate studies.
In 1968 McCarthy resigned his position as Cornell University Librarian and assumed the post of Executive Director of the Association of Research Libraries.