The University of Chicago Digs Deep to Solve Library Space Problem

Some adverse situations call for people to dig down deep within themselves to find a solution, but how many require literally digging down to solve a problem? In the case of University of Chicago's overcrowded library, the latter was the way to go. The result? An underground facility to house millions of library books, collections and documents. Schools offering Archival Studies degrees can also be found in these popular choices.


Nowhere to Go But Down

From community colleges to Ivy League schools, higher education institutions across the United States are contending with library space issues. The answer for most schools seems simple enough: move a certain amount of inventory to an off-site storage area.

However, this solution is not always the most ideal. Do students really want to drive five or ten miles to a storage facility to conduct their research? Administrators at University of Chicago didn't think so. University librarian Judith Nadler said, 'Reality shows that you cannot do your research well having materials off-site.'

Enter Helmut Jahn, a Chicago architect with an unorthodox answer.

More Than Meets the Eye

Welcome to the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. On the surface, it is a domed reading room of glass and steel. But, like an iceberg, that's just the tip: there's a lot more beneath the surface. In fact, you could say there's a wealth of knowledge not just at your fingertips, but beneath your feet. Enough knowledge to fill 3.5 million volumes, to be exact.

Any bit of that knowledge is just the press of a button away. Students need only to access the online catalog (from anywhere in the world!) and indicate which books they wish to have retrieved. This request activates the robotic retrieval system designed to remove book bins from the underground stacks. Each bin is bar-coded and contains about 100 books or periodicals. The automatic crane removes the bin and sends it to the surface, where a librarian removes the sought-after book. After that, the requestor receives an e-mail notifying them that the material is ready to be picked up.

From pressed button to retrieved information? Roughly five minutes.


The Wave of the Future?

Are other universities willing to dig down deep to solve their own library space problems? Maybe not, considering they would also have to dig down deep into their pockets: the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library cost a whopping $81 million. By contrast, Syracuse University will spend $5 million on an off-site storage facility, according to its dean of libraries. And University of Denver is spending less than half of the underground library's price tag to renovate its Penrose Library, with $3 million being used for an off-campus storage site.

University of Chicago made its vision a reality largely because it was the fortunate recipient of a $25 million gift from the couple the new library is named after, both alumni of the university. Joe Mansueto is chairman and CEO of Morningstar Inc., an investment research firm.

While University of Chicago maintains that it is saving on the costs of additional staff (remember, a robotic crane does most of the work here) and of moving the materials to an off-site location, the cost of going underground may be biting off more than many schools can chew. For now, it seems, other colleges and universities with library space problems won't be breaking any new ground.

Learn how you can utilize technology to check out e-books without ever stepping foot in a library.

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