Preparations continue for renovation of Firestone Library; Fisher named design partner

Work that began this summer in preparation for a comprehensive renovation of Firestone Library is continuing, and major construction should get under way in a year. University Librarian Karin Trainer and University Architect Ron McCoy made a presentation on the project at the Monday, Nov. 15, Council of the Princeton University Community meeting.

They announced that Frederick Fisher and Partners has been selected as the design partner to collaborate with Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott, which has been working on the project since 1997.

"It is common to establish a team of architects to design facilities for the Princeton campus," McCoy said. "The Firestone project is comprehensive and complex, raising issues such as the reader experience, organization of the collection, sustainability and life safety. All of this requires careful timing and phasing to minimize disruption and ensure access to the collection.

"In this context we felt Firestone would benefit from the expertise of a design partner who could provide attention and care for the beautiful spaces of the existing building while guiding a transformation of the interiors that is required by some important programming goals," he added. "The collaboration between Frederick Fisher and Partners and Shepley Bulfinch gives us the depth of expertise required by the project."

Fisher, an award-winning firm based in Los Angeles, also designed Princeton's Sherrerd Hall, which was completed in 2008. The selection was made by a committee that included University and library administrators, and Princeton facilities and Shepley Bulfinch staff members.

Fisher is expected to work on the major public spaces in the building. These include much of the first floor -- the lobby, new reading rooms and redesigned exhibition space -- as well as a new reading room on the third floor.

Several small construction projects began last summer in the building, including adding more shelving in the southeast corner of C floor, extending the staircase behind the card catalog to the second and third floors, building temporary staff offices on A and C floors, and assessing new brands of lighting and shelving in a small section of B floor.

"This new shelving and lighting, along with wider aisles, will make it a lot more pleasant to use the stacks," Trainer said. "The assessment is showing us that all of the engineering improvements for sustainability and safety can work, and at the same time we can make it look a lot better and make it easier to use."

Another project related to the renovation also began last summer. All of the Firestone books in the old Richardson call number classification are being re-labeled with Library of Congress call numbers and integrated into a single call number sequence. The project involves some 750,000 books and is expected to be finished in August 2011.

The old book-classification system, which dates to the turn of the 20th century, is named for its founder, former University Librarian Ernest Richardson. The University ceased using the Richardson system for new acquisitions in the late 1960s and switched to the Library of Congress system. Because the old system remained on old books, two volumes on the same topic could be shelved in different parts of Firestone.

"Library users have been asking that this reclassification be done for many years, and it is a pleasure to know that the consolidation is under way," Trainer said.

Major construction on the library, part of the University's Campus Plan, is expected to begin in about a year with infrastructure work. To minimize disruption to students and faculty, the renovation will take place in phases over 10 years. At 430,000 square feet, Firestone is the largest academic building on Princeton's campus. Much of the space is underground, adding to the complexity of the renovation.

Trainer said open houses will be held on Wednesday, Dec. 8, to update undergraduates, graduate students and faculty on the plans throughout the next year.

The library maintains a blog with up-to-date information on the project.

The renovation of Firestone is focused on creating a building that is well-suited to support modern library services and contemporary approaches to scholarship while also providing the proper environment for one of the world's great book and manuscript collections.

Principles guiding the renovation include: improving navigability and wayfinding throughout the building, especially in the open stacks; improving the quality of user spaces, including graduate study rooms, carrels, quiet public reading rooms and seating in the stack areas; creating more efficient shelving layouts; creating a larger and consolidated space for the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections; concentrating exhibit spaces on the first floor; consolidating library service points into more efficient and effective groupings; designing efficient and comfortable staff spaces; and bringing the building into compliance with current building and fire codes and accessibility standards.

The project dates to 1997 when, as Firestone approached its 50th anniversary, Trainer began working on a building assessment with Shepley Bulfinch, a Boston architectural firm with a specialized library practice. Over the years, the firm met with faculty, students and library staff and spent time observing how the building is used. Representatives also held many meetings with members of Princeton's facilities staff.

In fall 2007, a faculty steering committee was formed to take the next step in the process of planning for the renovation. The committee, chaired by Provost Christopher Eisgruber, developed the educational principles to guide the project. Also in fall 2007, the architects conducted focus group sessions with undergraduate and graduate students and with Firestone staff members.

Shepley Bulfinch was responsible for designing the 2003 renovation of Princeton's Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology. The firm also has been responsible for library renovations at the University of Chicago and at Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke and Yale universities, among others.

Since its founding more than 250 years ago, the library system at Princeton has grown from a collection of 474 volumes in one room of Nassau Hall to more than 7 million books, 6 million microforms and other items in 11 libraries around the campus. Firestone, built in 1948, is the main library and assumes primary responsibility for the humanities and social sciences.