Books and Bytes, March 1996: Reshaping a Library for the 21st Century - Butler Library Renovation

Butler Renovation Begins

Books & Bytes, March 1996


The much-awaited renovation of Butler Library has begun. Aimed at creating a library for the 21st century, the renovation will allow Columbia's flagship library to adapt to changing technologies and will return many of the library's most elegant spaces to its users, enhancing the experience of students, faculty, and staff at Columbia.

Designed by James Gamble Rogers and built in 1934 with a gift from Edward S. Harkness, Butler was considered innovative for its time. Its plan locates users where more direct light and air are available, while the books are housed in a central stack core. Today, Butler is Columbia's largest library, holding 2.3 million books in the humanities and history and more than 500,000 volumes, 75,000 photographs, and 28 million manuscripts in the already renovated Rare Book and Manuscript Library. At more than 400,000 square feet in area, it is the largest building on the Morningside campus.

To design the renovation, the architectural firm of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, with Wank Adams Slavin Associates, has worked closely with a program committee of students, faculty, librarians, and facilities experts. Estimated to cost $70 million, the project will be accomplished in several phases. For the duration of the process, the building is to stay open and services are to remain continuous, creating a complex logistical challenge. Phase I, begun in July 1995, is budgeted at approximately $20 million and will take 30 months to complete.

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In this phase, the first floor of Butler (below campus ground level) will be entirely renovated, and technical processing and cataloging operations will be consolidated from locations throughout the building into one efficient space on this floor. The resulting free space is a prerequisite for the essential future goal of creating more reading rooms for users. A new mechanical and electrical infrastructure will be installed throughout the building in Phase I, allowing future floor-by-floor modernization. The stacks will begin to receive a major face-lift, starting on the lower levels. In addition, a new telecommunications technology center will be constructed in a small area on the library's fifth floor to house state-of-the-art computer communications components capable of handling very high speed data communications. This leading edge network infrastructure will enable delivery of distributed multimedia applications and services throughout the renovated library.

Future phases of the renovation will be more visible to users, and the results will more directly enhance their library experience. The mechanical, electrical, and telecommunications systems will help preserve the collections, enhance reading and study spaces, and provide state-of-the-art telecommunications capability.

A series of undergraduate reading rooms and services supporting the Columbia undergraduate curriculum will be housed on the second, third, and fourth floors. As a convenience to readers, the Circulation desk will be relocated adjacent to the library's main entrance. The third floor will become the center for Reference and Information Services, bringing currently scattered services together into the heart of the library.

Floors five through eight will comprise the discipline-based graduate and research library. In the library's core stacks, entrances will be opened to every floor, dramatically improving access to books.

Ultimately, the metaphor behind the layout, as Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian Elaine Sloan explains, is that ascending the levels of the renovated Butler Library will reflect, symbolically, "the progress by which undergraduates move from prescribed readings and librarian-assisted discovery to the independent search for information that characterizes upperclass and graduate-level study."

The renovation follows years of careful planning. For some time the campus community has recognized that Butler needs a major renovation. A 1987 Report of the Presidential Commission on the Future of Columbia University found the library's physical plant in need of extensive renewal to match "the richness of its collections." Subsequent to that report, a 1989 planning study confirmed that the building is clearly suffering from poor use of the existing space, as well as serious deterioration of its physical plant, an inability to accommodate new technologies, and inadequate facilities for services tailored to undergraduate instruction. The planning group emphasized that a renovation is called for in order to remedy all of these problems while still maintaining and highlighting the original architecture and craftsmanship of the library.

A vital part of the ongoing renovation process is the concerted effort that is being made to keep users and staff informed and provide fluid communication for everyone involved. Library staff presently receive daily e-mail notification of expected work, and signs are posted in the lobby and elevator waiting areas and other locations. In the works and coming soon are a bimonthly bulletin with an article of special interest, an illustrated exhibit for the library lobby, and a home page on the World Wide Web.