University libraries have designs on the future

Marilyn Marks

Princeton NJ -- Planning for the newly opened library in the Friend Center for Engineering Education began with a pizza party, organized to solicit student and faculty opinions on what kind of place the new facility should be. A consultant then incorporated their ideas into a design document; a distinguished architect translated the document into a useable plan; and construction soon was under way.

To accommodate the growth in the libraries' collections, Princeton recently opened a high-tech storage library at the Forrestal Campus in a joint venture with Columbia University and the New York Public Library. Pictured are Eileen Henthorne, the acting executive director of the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, and Amir Khan, who uses a forklift to store books on three-story-high shelves.


But halfway through the construction process, planners realized the design already was out of date. So the architects went back to work, penciling in more room for computers, connections for laptops and electronic classrooms that allow students to click into databases, navigate the Internet and view film clips that illustrate, for example, how water flows around a dam or air flows around an airplane wing.

The architects cut back on shelving and added more workspaces for students, including stand-up workstations near the front door. And when the facility opened last fall -- five years after planning began -- it was state-of-the art: with every chair -- even the comfy armchairs -- wired for power and data; a high-tech document workstation with CD burner, scanner and other tools; and 26 public terminals with printers.

"The job of building new libraries is getting more exciting but also more complicated by the day," said University Librarian Karin Trainer. "It's simply that the shape of information technology is changing so rapidly, particularly in the sciences. It's very difficult to predict how to configure space that will be appropriate when a new library actually opens." It is not unusual for five years to pass between first planning a new library and the library's opening, she said -- a lifetime in terms of technology.

Princeton's ongoing library construction program is perhaps the most extensive of any university in the country, said Trainer, who has had more than her share of first-hand experience. In addition to the engineering library, which was designed by the renowned architectural firm Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Trainer has overseen work on the Mendel Music Library, the Trustee Reading Room and the Cotsen Children's Library in Firestone, the Stokes Library in Wallace Hall, the East Asian library in the Frist Campus Center and a massive, just-opened storage library at the Forrestal Campus.

Work is under way to create an inviting branch library at Chancellor Green, as part of the project to renovate East Pyne as the Andlinger Center for the Humanities. The planned science library near Fine Hall, being designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry, must support emerging technologies as well as teaching and research in evolving, interdisciplinary fields.

At McCormick Hall, the Marquand Library of Art and Archeology is undergoing its first significant renovation and expansion in almost 40 years; the work will accommodate a collection that has been growing by more than 6,000 volumes each year at the same time it provides for more Internet access, computers, scanners and other tools for digital research. There will be many more seats for the students and faculty who increasingly want to use the library, and for the first time there will be a special room where users can consult the library's most rare and valuable volumes.

At Marquand, scheduled to be completed next summer, an electronic classroom will allow librarians to guide students through online files of images and reference material, while another room will be set aside for scanners, copiers and digitizing tools. All the seminar rooms in the library will incorporate the latest technologies for projecting images and connecting to the Internet. "We're not selecting the equipment yet because technology changes so fast," said Janice Powell, the Marquand librarian.

Online access stimulates use

Princeton librarians say the expansion of online research has not led to a decline in the use of books and paper materials. Even while publications go digital and students now access information from their dorm rooms in the middle of the night, library use increases. Use of the rare book room at Firestone Library increased 50 percent last year, which Trainer attributes largely to growing use by undergraduates. Why? She suspects that's because rare book records were put online two years ago, making them easier for students to find.

Circulation of library books and journals increased by 14 percent last year, probably because of increased use of the online catalog and significant outreach by University librarians with students, Trainer said.

Traditional collections continue to grow. Laid out in a row, the new books received by University libraries each year would stretch a mile and a half. To accommodate the growth, Princeton recently opened a high-tech storage library at Forrestal in a joint venture with Columbia University and the New York Public Library. At that facility, called ReCAP, for the Research Collections and Preservation Consortium, workers process an average of 10,000 books from the three institutions daily, meticulously identifying them with barcodes before fitting them into precisely sized cardboard trays and storing them with forklifts on shelves three stories high. When requested by a reader, books, journals or other materials stored at ReCAP can be sent to the home libraries within a day, said Eileen Henthorne, the acting executive director.

Both at Forrestal and on the main campus, the key is flexibility. New technologies call not only for new equipment and reallocation of space, but have significant implications for lighting, climate control, and cabling and wiring.

Architects are asked to avoid internal columns that can restrict alterations and renovations as technology and needs change. They increasingly consider construction that would allow them to move walls easily down the road. And architects are asked to provide large channels for wiring and cabling to accommodate unknown, future standards. The Stokes Library in the Woodrow Wilson School, for example, was built with a "hollow" floor, allowing the University to run wires underneath to every inch of library space.

"In the end, though, there is no such thing as a totally flexible building," Trainer said. "The plumbing and duct work for heating and cooling still needs to go somewhere."

Architect Michael Graves, the Robert Schirmer Professor of Architecture Emeritus, has noted that despite all the changes in library design, a library remains "a place for human learning, the study of humanities," with comfortable reading rooms, efficient staff workrooms, ambient lighting and easily accessible stacks. "I thus regard this humanistic understanding along with the myths and rituals of our collective cultures as the basis of my library design, and not the metaphor of the machine as modern technology might imply."

Graves' design for the Denver Public Library, which last year was honored by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association, carefully hid the building's high-tech nature by placing more than 50 miles of fiber-optic cable and copper wire in the ceilings, walls and floors, where they would be unseen by visitors.

The view that libraries must remain inviting despite their technology is shared by Trainer, who noted that while libraries increasingly require machine rooms, they must be warm and welcoming places -- not industrial spaces. "These are high-stakes buildings," she said. "If we do them well, students are far more inclined to use them."


June 17, 2002
Vol. 92, No. 29
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Commencement 2002
Tilghman urges graduates to carry on 'the spirit of Princeton'
Four faculty members recognized for their outstanding teaching
Commencement highlights on Web
Photographs from Commencement 2002
By the numbers: Commencement 2002

Spence gift creates Ludwig endowment
University libraries have designs on the future

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Faculty news
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People, spotlight
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Calendar of events

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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Evelyn Tu, Vanessa Wills
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Megan Peterson
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett