A major renovation transforms Central Library into a 'livable' learning destination
by Kara Furlong
photography by John Russell
The first thing you notice when stepping into Central Library’s new fourth-floor lobby is a sense of light and space. Gone is the dark, cluttered entryway that more than one student described as “cave-like” on user surveys last year, replaced by more room, new flooring and natural light.
“I’ve been asked by several people how we raised the ceilings,” said Dean of Libraries Connie Vinita Dowell, who assures that no such thing has happened. “It’s actually just new lighting and paint. We did open up some spaces, which makes it feel grander.”
The next thing that grabs your attention is a collage of seemingly unrelated words being projected from the ceiling onto the lobby’s floor. This projection represents real-time searches of the library’s electronic catalogs.
“The most current search is in larger type, and as we pick up new searches, the older search phrases get smaller,” Dowell explained. “It’s a dynamic representation of research at the university, not just by users in this building, but by people using our resources from all over.”
These new features are part of a $6 million renovation of Central Library – one designed to make the space more inviting, to make Vanderbilt’s Special Collections more accessible, and to better meet the needs of students in the 21st century.
And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. The renovation also includes converting stacks on the eighth floor into a bright, spacious study area, a multimedia classroom and a high-tech conference room that also can host classes; returning the Payne room to its former glory as a dedicated graduate reading room; adding galleries on the second and fourth floors that will feature interactive exhibits; and creating from former office space a large Community Room and in-house café – a brand-new venue where students can study and community members can gather that also will host special events. In total, some 35,300 square feet of library space will be renovated.
“We wanted to do a combination of returning a 70-year-old building to some of its original beauty while announcing that we’ve moved into a new era. That’s why I’m excited, for starters, about the electronic search exhibit,” Dowell said of that attention-grabbing light feature in the lobby. “We decided to also make it relate to people as they physically pass through it. It can sense someone walking beneath it, causing the projection to change its shape.
“It will have a sense of life and movement, a sense of representing a world that didn’t exist when the library first opened, a way to symbolize a renewal of the space.”
A Much-needed Update
When Central Library opened in 1941 as part of the Joint University Libraries system, it was designed to utilize the very latest in library science. In the closed-stack library, undergraduates spent most of their time in large, paneled reading rooms while staff retrieved their requested materials from the stack floors. The stacks themselves were compact and utilitarian, with low ceilings, metal shelving and concrete floors. Library entrances, corridors and elevators were planned to accommodate a traffic flow predicated on this design.
When the library switched to open stacks, more students were pulled into these unappealing spaces. Changing technology and the library’s growing collections also played roles in outdating the building.
“We made the situation worse in certain ways – but with good reason,” Dowell said. “This building was designed for a tiny collection compared to what we have now. And it was not designed to have photocopiers, computers, mobile technology and media. We’ve filled it over the years with things it was not designed for without redesigning it.”
Vanderbilt hired Nashville architects Gilbert McLaughlin Casella to re-imagine the space as more than just a repository for books – rather, as an easy-to-navigate, state-of-the-art community building.
“This architect was clever in creating a new primary circulation route for visitors from what had been an indirect network of corridors ever since the addition of the H. Fort Flowers wing to the library in the 1960s,” said Judson Newbern, deputy vice chancellor for facilities and environmental affairs.
“The original grand spaces in the library were restored from years of infill,” added university architect Keith Loiseau, project manager on the renovation. “Doing this proved a very sustainable approach by meeting program needs without having to expand the building.”
“This renovation of Central Library is long overdue,” said Richard McCarty, provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “The finished product will be a great way to welcome members of the larger community to our campus, as well as better serve the teaching, learning and research needs of our faculty and students.
“I give a lot of praise to Dean Dowell and her staff for having a vision for the library moving forward and carrying it through to beautiful result.”
A Dramatic Redesign
University libraries everywhere face the challenge of keeping pace with technology and students’ evolving needs amidst aging facilities. The particular challenges of Vanderbilt’s library were already familiar to Dowell when she was hired from San Diego State University in 2008. Dowell received her master’s degree in library science from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College in 1979 and even manned reference desks in the central and science libraries as a graduate student.
Shortly after her Vanderbilt appointment, Dowell commissioned staff to conduct a comprehensive survey of library users. More than 2,200 responses were received, and the dean reviewed every one.
“About half of the surveys included comments, and most of those were very detailed,” said Dowell, who was heartened by the passionate interest shown in the library. “What became clear among Central Library users was that they were dissatisfied with the building. ‘I dread going into the library, it’s dark, it’s cave-like’ were phrases that came up more than once. As the dean of libraries, it’s not what you want to hear.”
With the support of Vanderbilt’s administration, Dowell and her staff began work on the most significant redesign of Central Library in its seven-decade history. Dowell convened dozens of focus groups with undergraduate and graduate students to assess their wants and needs. She met with faculty, deans and departments, giving more than 50 presentations across campus.
“The Graduate Student Council was consulted every step of the way,” said Jonathan Wellons, the council’s president for 2009-10. “We were invited to tour the library, Dean Dowell came to speak at one of our general body meetings, and our VP of academic affairs was on a committee for library business.”
“Last spring, Dean Dowell worked with Vanderbilt Student Government to organize focus groups, interactive tours and discussions that allowed students to provide detailed input regarding what they want out of their library experience – everything from the type of furniture and study carrels to the most conducive arrangements for individual quiet study versus group meeting space,” said Lori Murphy, VSG president for 2010-11.
The input gathered revealed that students wanted more open and comfortable study areas, more power outlets for plugging in laptops and electronic devices, and an abundance of natural light. The final renovation will provide additional seating for 201 and add a whopping 584 new public-use power outlets and nine new computers.
Library staff relocated more than 75,000 volumes from stacks on the eighth floor to open up a 2,300-square-foot, sunlight-drenched study area that students flocked to this summer even before it had furniture.
“As soon as we opened up that part of the eighth floor, the students started to find it,” Dowell said. “They would take their laptops up there and lean against the walls. They liked it so much that they didn’t wait for the chairs.
“Already this semester we’re sensing a huge increase in traffic at the library,” she said. “Not a small one, but a very large one for this time of year.”
Sure to draw even more traffic is a planned Community Room, café and outdoor patio that will border Library Lawn. In addition to serving as an eat-in study space for library patrons, the Community Room – scheduled to open at the start of the spring semester – will double as a lecture and performance venue.
“Graduate students I have spoken with are excited about the café,” Wellons said. “In combination with the other changes – the improved décor, furniture, layout and natural lighting – the café makes the library a more ‘livable’ workspace where students will want to come and spend their time.”
Wellons is thrilled by the return of the Bruce R. Payne Graduate Reading Room to its original purpose. Named in memory of the longtime Peabody College president, the sixth-floor room was filled over the years with microforms equipment and materials, forcing graduate students to find other study spaces or share the fourth-floor Parkes-Armistead Room with other library users.
“Graduate students use the library disproportionately in several ways related to their research,” Wellons said. “We often rely on the online and physical journals, reference textbooks and materials that the library provides to form a staple of our references. So the study carrels and Graduate Reading Room will be a prized commodity for us.”
Engaging the Community
Other additions, including a classroom adjacent to the Parkes-Armistead Room and classrooms on the eighth floor, will enhance the library’s longtime mission of teaching research fundamentals to Vanderbilt students.
“We want to offer more and more classes in which we teach students how to find reliable information, how to evaluate the quality of their sources, and the dangers of plagiarizing, which in this era is so easy to do,” Dowell said.
Any students who believe that doing Google searches in the dorm room is enough to sustain their academic careers should strongly reconsider, she said.
“We spend close to $9 million a year to provide the best and latest information to our campus community. We’re very proud of the resources that we offer. A lot of them are now available online, and students can access them at 3 a.m., even if they can’t come in to check out a book at that time. We want to do as much as possible to ensure that students know about these resources and know how to use them.”
“Libraries continue to be central to faculty and students – especially in the humanities and social sciences – not only as repositories of information, but also as places to gather to do research, work collaboratively using new technologies and as teaching locales,” said Marshall Eakin, professor of history. “These wonderful library renovations will make the building a true ‘knowledge center’ that brings students and faculty together to do their research and engage in collaborative learning.”
Another addition made possible by the renovation are galleries on the second and fourth floors that will highlight items from Vanderbilt’s Special Collections, making them accessible to the community like never before. These exhibits range from manuscripts to artifacts to touch screens offering digital information and were curated by a team of subject librarians and technology staff.
The idea to create gallery space came from students, who said they wanted artwork and exhibits to enrich their library-going experience. Washington, D.C.’s Newseum was the inspiration for making the exhibits interactive and for incorporating material from the Vanderbilt Television News Archive.
“The same information that we’re using in the exhibits will be available on the Web for a number of purposes,” Dowell said. “I’m hoping there will be more papers done using these resources for theses, more dissertations coming from our collections as a result. That would be a wonderful contribution to scholarship.”
The galleries’ inaugural exhibit, “The Sixties at 50,” encompasses Vietnam, civil rights, the space race and the Cold War; looks at the decade through the lens of literature, music, television and film; and features unique contributions by former NBC Chairman Julian Goodman, Academy Award-winning director Delbert Mann, civil rights leader the Rev. James Lawson and journalist John Seigenthaler, among others. “The Sixties at 50” is scheduled to open in late October and run through the 2010-11 academic year.
A Welcoming Space
Dowell hopes that students will make return trips to the library just to view the exhibits – and bring their friends and family members with them.
“If we see the students bringing their friends and their parents in, if we see the Nashville community responding to this, we’ll know we’ve been successful,” she said.
Those outside of Vanderbilt can always borrow library materials through the Nashville Area Library Alliance, which makes books available through interlibrary loan. But those coming to campus to view the collections first-hand or to attend a public event will have a better experience thanks to a sleeker, more streamlined 21st Avenue entrance. In addition to improvements to the stairs and wheelchair-access ramp, the new entrance calls for external exhibits that will herald the library as a high-tech space.
“Creating an attractive, visually interesting entrance from 21st Avenue was very appealing to a lot of the decision-makers on this project,” Dowell said. “I’m thrilled by the idea of a major entryway to the campus being through the galleries, exhibits and the library.
“I think back to one of the most articulate students from the focus groups. He talked about how libraries are symbols of their communities, how important they are as shared public spaces, and how badly he wanted his campus to have that. Now, we will.”
VSG President Lori Murphy believes that Vanderbilt students – past, present and future – will now respond to the library only in positive ways.
“I’m proud that the renovations will showcase one of our most precious campus resources that is so often overlooked,” she said. “Between the aesthetic improvements and the interactive exhibits, I believe Central Library is on a path to becoming a hallmark destination for undergraduates, faculty, prospective students and community members alike.”
“It’s rare to address a project of this magnitude as rapidly as we did,” Dowell said. “To make room for the new study areas, the staff put in many extra hours moving out and shifting down well over 100,000 volumes while keeping them available to library users via the online catalogs – and while maintaining regular library services.
“A large number of staff gave up convenient office space to make the Community Room possible,” she said. “Due to their sacrifices and to some very good planning, the renovation has gone so smoothly that it’s surprised us all.”
All the months of planning, all renovation efforts aside, Dowell said she wants the library to represent a simple but important idea to students and the Vanderbilt community.
“I want them to feel, from their first day at Vanderbilt, welcomed and supported and that we are a part of their success,” she said. “I want them to think we are a fun place to be, and that they look forward to coming back. And I want Central Library to be a place they’re very proud to see as a symbol of their campus.”
For more information, visit www.library.vanderbilt.edu.