All the Answers We Might Miss

“Today I met Louis who is an activist and [who] really is trying to make a change in his community. I met some of his kids…,” an anonymous visitor commented.

“I am half-Mexican (my Dad’s from Mexico City), and the opportunity to talk to someone from my Dad’s home city brings such a smile to my face!” a student named Drake wrote.

These were just two of the many comments written on the guest book of the Cornell Portal, part of a global, public art installation initiated by the Shared Studios. The Cornell Portal was housed in a gold-painted shipping container outside of the Olin Library from August to November 2018. It was equipped with digital technology that featured life-sized images and enabled real-time conversation between people continents apart as though they were in the same room.

I was urged to bring the project to Cornell University by three Cornell librarians who visited a Portal during a conference. The Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs and the Office of Engagement Initiatives enthusiastically funded the Cornell Portal. For twelve months, a Library project team worked through complex logistics. We also teamed up with staff from the Center for Teaching Innovation and the Office of Engagement Initiatives to help Cornell faculty incorporate the Portal in courses.

The project brought many surprises.

“[We walked] in on a whim and ended up having an ‘accidental’ conversation with Lewis in Milwaukee, who provided a gripping dialogue of his life and perspective. One of the coolest, most unique, and most unexpected experiences I’ve ever had,” wrote two visitors, Derek and Jan.

“They sang Happy Birthday to me in Arabic and English. It was really beautiful to have this connection from someone who I’d never meet otherwise,” wrote an anonymous visitor.

These unexpected experiences were shared by many people. In the three months the Cornell Portal was on campus, it received 2,300 visits. These included drop-ins and prearranged visits by faculty and students from 14 courses; administrators, including the Cornell president; local high school students; community members, including the mayor of Ithaca; and out-of-towners.

They met men, women, and children in Portals located in 17 places, including Erbil, Iraq; Herat, Afghanistan; San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Mexico City, Mexico; Berlin, Germany; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. They talked about family, student life, elections, migration, women in STEM, and ethical issues in health and medicine. They practiced speaking languages like Spanish. Some even played music together. And many took selfies across time and space.

Nicole, a student, wrote, “It was really awesome to connect w/ people so far away & makes you realize how similar we are.”

The Cornell Portal was one of the most rewarding projects for me because it shares an essential similarity with librarianship: They both connect people with facts, knowledge, culture, and human experiences. Libraries and librarians help reduce missed connections where answers might be waiting.

When I visited the Cornell Portal for the first time, I had butterflies. I didn’t know what was appropriate for me to ask the people who stood in front of me on the screen, whose life-sized images were streamed from Herat, Afghanistan.

In the end, the young men and I talked about mothers, and how mothers—like me—are so similar, no matter where we may be.

Nov 21, 2018

Xin Li
Associate University Librarian
Cornell University Library

Views expressed are the opinions of the author and do not represent endorsement by Cornell University.

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