Redefining a library

Posted
Saturday, April 14
WILLIAMSTOWN — At the simplest level, a library is a place to store books. But it is also a community center, a social hub and a place where knowledge can rest at your fingertips.

And now that Williams College — a center of learning for which a library is a critical space — has its chance to build a new $128 million facility, it will pay as much attention to its patrons as to its books.

"The last thing we want to do is build a box for books, which is what we have now," Williams Librarian David Pilachowski said. "The books edged out the people."

Only 32 years after it opened, Sawyer Library, which straddles the heart of campus, is about to be replaced. And a new library project is under way that will deploy the latest thinking in what a library must be and do.

In terms of floor space, the new building will be only marginally larger than the current one. It will integrate information technology, compact shelving and off-site storage to concentrate holdings. It also will re-emphasize people's needs and the type of group work they do at a library.

Reshaping campus

And more than that, the library project will reshape the campus. It will restore the stately 1923 Stetson Hall to its original purpose as the college library and create a new east-west axis through the heart of campus, linking the library to the Paresky Center, the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance and the other buildings on the north side of campus. And it will clear away a building in Sawyer Library that — despite its intentions — never caught on with the campus or with the community at large.

Building Committee Co-Chairman Michael Brown said two cost analyses found the same surprising results: The difficulty of renovating the existing library — which would require the awesome task of closing half of it, working on it for two years and then doing the same to the other half — was as much effort as starting from scratch.

"In the end, we and the trustees were persuaded we are better off to build it again," he said.

Work has begun on the project. To the north of the library, crews are blasting at the bedrock to create the foundation of what is provisionally named the "North Academic Center." Once classes end, work will begin on another, smaller building to the south, to be called the "South Academic Center."

They will be ready in fall 2008, at which point the academic offices and classrooms now in Stetson will be moved in. Crews will then knock out the rear additions to Stetson from 1956 and later. Work will begin on a new, five-story library to the rear that will be completed in 2011.

Stetson Hall will be the new entryway. Because it sits on the lip of a slope, the five-story building to the rear will be no higher than Stetson is now, and one will enter onto the third floor. A skylit atrium will separate the north side of the addition — which will feature books and storage — from the south side, which will house "people spaces" for reference, information technology and study areas.

The project was designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, a firm that began in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The firm has completed a number of projects for technology firms — it has designed several Apple computer stores around the country, including the signature one on Fifth Avenue in New York, and Bill and Melinda Gates' home in Washington state.

An aging Sawyer Library

The design is much different from the current Sawyer Library, for which ground was broken in 1973. Sawyer was built on the site of an elaborate stone mansion called Van Rensselaer House, which had been the home of Sigma Phi fraternity.

The Berkshire Eagle optimistically praised the building at the time for its unfolding nature and unassuming character. An exhibit on campus shortly after it opened described it as "a distinctly Midwestern building placed in an equally distinct New England campus."

It was an effort to blend into a busy area of competing architectural styles and shapes — ranging from the Gilded Age grandeur of Chapin Hall and the neo-Gothic Thompson Chapel to the simple federal-style Griffin Hall and the traditional whitewashed First Congregational Church.

But as the years went by, the building began to age in less than gracious ways. Pilachowski recalls that the building was built in the jolt of the first big energy crisis and was designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. To that end, it did not have an air-conditioning system, but rather windows that could be opened. An air conditioner was added in the 1990s, but it is not as efficient as current standards recommend.

There are a number of other minor quirks as well. No one would design a building today in which you walk in and immediately face a steep set of steps. And the reservation and circulation desks, two closely interactive operations, are on separate floors.

And as the collection grew, more and more spaces were filled with books. "The accumulation of books pushed people to the margins," Brown said.

Solving the issues

The crisis will be solved in the new building in two ways.

First, the college plans to take advantage of off-site storage solutions. The library subscribes to a host of academic journals, which are not read by many. Those, plus government documents, will be moved to an off-site location, where they can be retrieved upon request by library staff. Pilachowski said that up to 30 percent of the collection could be stored this way.

The other solution is to take advantage of new shelving systems, such as compact shelves that run on tracks and that can collapse like bellows when not being used. These systems are easier to install in new buildings and require floors that are sturdy enough to hold them, something that Sawyer's are not.

The study areas are an important element of the design. In Weese's plans, the use of the building was important, and as part of his design work, he conducted student surveys and mock-up study carrels. That led to the distinctive carrels in the library today, some of which are womblike closets, and others atop them with views over the floor.

In a 1998 oral history project for the Art Institute of Chicago, Weese explained that that was part of the plan.

"Instead of just throwing furniture in, we actually designed libraries around the furniture," he said. "This was a whole new area of exploration, and it really made libraries places where people wanted to be, and it increased their attendance tremendously."

Seeking group spaces

The new library will bristle with new technology and ideas, but it also will closely integrate the best of the past. Not only will Stetson Hall be restored to its former role, but the college also plans to resuscitate the large, open reading room.

For many people, libraries are defined by high ceilings, big tables, hushed voices and tasteful table lamps, with nary a fluorescent light in sight. Think of the New York Public Library or the British Museum.

The college's former grand reading room is in Stetson Hall and is now serving time as the rarely used faculty lounge. The plans will restore it to the kind of place seen in the historic photographs of the campus.

"It has gotten a very positive reaction from the faculty and students," Pilachowski said. "They can already imagine that grand reading room."


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