Designing the Davis Family Library
Glenn Andres, C.A. Johnson Professor of Art and Director of the Arts, delivered these remarks about the design of the library at a panel presentation before the naming ceremony.
Good afternoon. My role, as chair of the library building committee during the years of its physical planning and construction, is to provide some background on what we strove to achieve with the new building. For this purpose Paul Gauguin's "Where do we come from, What are we, Where are we going?" (painted 1897/8, at the time that Starr Library was being planned) seems to suggest a good agenda.
The First College Library
Where did we come from? We came out of Starr Library, Middlebury's first dedicated library building, constructed as a Centennial project in 1899–1900. Starr began life as a small T-shaped structure with a vaulted reading room across the front and a wing with multi-level stacks forming the stem of the T in behind. It was subsequently expanded roughly every quarter century. First came twin wings in 1927 to house the Abernethy Collection and to provide a reserve reading room.
Then, College and collection growth required new stacks and the glazed reading room in 1959-62. Ambitious collection development from the 1960s onward necessitated more stack provisions in the Meredith wing of 1978-9, by which point the college had a much pieced building.
By the 1990s, the library's capacity had once again been overgrown, in terms of collection space for a relatively young and active collection that did not lend itself well to the remote storage solutions being utilized by sister schools, and in terms of staff and user space where even the attics (outfitted with orange shag carpeting) were pressed into use.
It had sprawled horizontally to the limits of a restrictive site. Its handsome original proportions had been distorted. Its plan had become increasingly incoherent. It had 18 levels that could never all be made ADA accessible. Floor plate heights as low as 7'-6" were too low to admit upgraded technology and climate control. And there were moisture and mold problems on the lower levels.
A New Library for Middlebury
The need to remedy these conditions dictated one of College's most ambitious Bicentennial projects. It precipitated six and a half years of program planning by the Library Planning Committee under the leadership of librarian Ronald Rucker and committee chair Eric Davis. They gathered and sifted statistics, weighed the implications of various growth scenarios, and studied models. They formulated the "lattice" concept (LATC - library and technology center) conceived to merge the College's print and information technology resources in a single location.
The 196-page program the committee generated guided the library through eight designs by our architects, Gwathmey Siegel Associates. Four involved the demolition of all but the historic core of Starr and surrounding it with new construction. Three explored adapting and expanding the old Science Center. And one proposed an all-new building on the prominent front-campus site of the Science Center.
The last is the option the College and Trustees chose to follow. I am taking the liberty of calling that option, though now six years old, the point for my "What are we?". The new building was designed to address the full range of the program's concerns and goals. It was to have a sense of prominence. It was to have a sense of institutional dignity, addressed with such features as the great hall, the history wall, and space for displays and art. It was to draw new life to the front campus. But most importantly, it was to be user-friendly. That required clarity of layout and of access to resources. Thus it was designed with three principal floors—an interactive service floor at entry level, with prominence given to the circulation and information desks, and quiet stack and study areas up and down.
The building had to accommodate the college's print collections, maintaining their centrality, even as technology was acknowledged as of increasing importance. The architects commented that they had never before been asked to design a library so focused on books. The books occupy the core of each floor and are arranged to address the concern that the entire active collection should be housed and easily browse able in open stacks, reserving the more space-efficient compact shelving for journals, documents, and microforms.
But the library had many other agendas to serve besides its role as a warehouse for books. It also had to focus and serve media and technology. The film and video library was moved there from Sunderland, to be served by individual and group media study facilities.
Smart classrooms of varied configurations were incorporated to serve library and technology education as well as general academic use. There were a high end computer laboratory and plentiful group stations to foster collaborative student interaction. The perimeter of the active main floor was designed to provide a range of services—reference and user services, the informational technology help desk, the writing center (now the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research)—while that on the lower level incorporated Special Collections, the College Archives, web development, and programming.
The building was designed to accommodate a much expanded usership among both students and faculty. Open and assignable seating can serve 38 percent of the student body at any given time—at tables, in carrels, in arm chairs, and in group work stations and studies - with every seat hard-wired to the college servers and plentiful lockers for storage of research materials. There are assignable offices for emeritus faculty and for those with in-situ leaves, and study spaces to facilitate the research of active faculty.
In reaction to Starr Library, which had become such a downer that students avoided it if at all possible, the new library was designed as a place people would want to be. Comforts were high on the agenda. Thus there is a café to serve both as a faculty & student gathering spot and as an all-night study area. Its incorporation involved the decision as well to admit food and beverages into library proper. The reading rooms were designed with spectacular views celebrating the historic core of the campus as well as the village and Green Mountains. To take advantage of the views while responding to Facilities Services concerns that hassocks had a tendency to wander, they were outfitted with specially designed recliner chairs with attached footrests and work palettes.
The building also had to serve the college's concerns for sustainability. Its massing is compact, with large floor plates contained within a minimized perimeter for reduced heat loss. The books occupy the core, because they need no natural light. A periphery that is multiplied by the inclusion of mezzanines maximizes natural light for offices and carrels. The interiors are warmed by a lavish use of natural wood - all certified green lumber and of regional manufacture - for casings, end panels, and commodious carrels. The reading room tables and chairs are of certified lumber as well as local design and manufacture.
The planning also sought to recognize and accommodate inevitable adjustment, as technology and organizational patterns continued to experience rapid change. Adaptability was a major concern. Thus the floor decks in the stack areas were structured to accommodate the weight of compact shelving, providing the potential for decades of collection growth without additions to the building envelope or recourse to remote storage. At the same time, they were designed with punch-outs at frequent intervals to permit potential for the conversion of these same areas to technology stations, if that should be the direction the library would take. Such adjustment would be facilitated by
the provision of clear, six-foot-high technology space between the ceilings and floors of the stack areas for ease of access to the thousands of miles of wiring that accommodate the networks and serve the work stations.
Those were the features planned and built for opening day. However, any realist knows that once your baby begins to take off on its own, you cannot necessarily predict where it will go. "Where are we going?" I leave the exploration of how the library has worked, or not, since day one and where it is likely to go to my fellow panelist/users, who have been testing and adapting the building to their evolving needs.