Fashion Vs. Function: College Libraries in the 21st Century

Many American college libraries were originally built in the 1960s, an era that favored blocky architecture and lots of space devoted to book stacks. But in the past few decades both architectural tastes and the role of the library have changed, and many universities are considering a total library rebuild. Schools offering Fashion Design degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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Seeking 21st Century Solutions

Last month, the Society for College and University Planning held their North Atlantic regional meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts. Presentations covered topics like recession-era construction, creative planning solutions, green-oriented building and, in one talk led by designLAB architects, the total restructuring of the university library.

Administrators from Lafayette College and the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth spoke alongside the architects to discuss library reconstruction projects on their campuses. Lafayette recently finished renovating and modernizing the Skillman Library and UMass - Dartmouth is currently undergoing similar changes to its library. Both institutions are focused on using sustainable building techniques to create library spaces that meet today's academic and technological needs - all on a recession-era budget.

The problem that these and countless other colleges and universities are facing is that many academic libraries in the U.S. and Canada were built or expanded about 50 years ago. In the 1960s, Modernist architects favored a heavy, blocky building style often referred to as 'Brutalism.' Today, these behemoths are widely considered eyesores, which is particularly troubling for buildings that also tend be the centerpiece of college and university life.

Furthermore, most college libraries were built as massive book storehouses with most space dedicated to the stacks. This made sense in an era when a library's primary function was to house and lend books. But the academic library has evolved to become an information center that needs as much space for new technologies and collaborative learning environments as it does for book storage. As a result, both fashion and function are motivating universities to embark upon significant library rebuilding projects.

Skillman Library renovated by Robert J. Miklos photo by Steve Wolfe

Building on a Budget

Unfortunately, 2011 isn't a great year for ambitious construction projects. Although the U.S. economy is technically coming out of the recent recession, most college and university budgets are still struggling to recover. And for many institutions, there's no clear end to these financial difficulties in sight. But libraries are so central to the academic mission that updating them is often a necessity, not a luxury.

In more financially flush times, colleges and universities will often just start from scratch, tearing down old structures and rebuilding from the ground up. When faced with budgetary constraints, however, many institutions are instead opting to renovate existing buildings. This choice is 'vastly more efficient' according to Robert Miklos, current president of designLAB.

In their presentation, the firm outlined four key issues driving many library renovation projects:

  1. Keeping costs low.
  2. Re-purposing the space for new programming needs.
  3. Increasing energy efficiency.
  4. Improving the campus image.

In the case of the Skillman Library, the original building was designed to disperse users into the stacks, following the primary function of storing and accessing books. But today's Lafayette students need a space in which they can work collaboratively while still having easy access to the information and resources the library provides. In response to this need, architects were able to dramatically restructure the interior of the Skillman to create a centralized 'learning commons' that is now more popular than Lafayette's student center.

The UMass - Dartmouth project is also focusing on eliminating dark, musty corners stuffed with books in favor of brightly lit spaces for reading, collaboration and even eating - according to the university's assistant dean of library services, 'If students have to go across campus to get a meal, they're not going to come back.'

By renovating the existing library buildings, both institutions have been able to save money, update energy efficiency and restructure building interiors to serve 21st century students' needs. As more colleges and universities across the country undertake similar projects, the library may once again become the vibrant informational and social hub of academic life.

Modernization isn't just about new buildings: Many libraries are also digitizing their collections.

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