Uprooting the stacks: U gears up for transformation

Coralie Carlson

Editor’s note: More than $400 million is earmarked to build and renovate numerous University facilities over the next several years, thanks to a 1998 capital budget windfall and private donations. This is the second in a 10-part series, ‘Reconstructin the U,’ detailng how the massive rejuvenation effort will affect every student, staff and faculty member in addition to reshaping the school’s physical appearance. Next Monday’s issue will explore the renovation of the St. Paul Gym.

Next year, workers will remove most of the books from Walter Library to make way for the medium of the Information Age: the computer.
The stacks — a free-standing, 12-story skeleton of bookshelves built within the library — will be completely removed, and all the books rehoused at the new Archive Center and Wilson Library. The renovated Walter will still hold three floors of books, but more volumes will be available online.
“Our reliance on paper is slowly starting to decrease,” said Don Kelsey, a facilities planner for University libraries who has worked with Walter Library for 30 years.
Seventy-six years ago, when Walter Library was built, it sat squarely at the nexus of modern innovation and architecture, a victory for those who would ease life’s burdens through aesthetics and technology.
Electric windows opened with the push of a button. A pneumatic lift system carried books up from Walter’s bowels. A pressurized system of tubes throughout the building created a vacuum cleaner anywhere a janitor could plug in a hose.
Walter’s grand entryway greeted visitors with stately stone columns, intricate gold-patterned ceilings and graceful wooden trim.
Today, new lighting and additional shelving impede the original design. Opening a window is a manual operation. The vacuuming system serves more as a conversation piece than a functional design.
But University officials hope to recapture some of the original grandeur through a $53.6 million infusion of state money intended to bring the science and technology library into the next century.
“It’s going to be marvelously consistent with the historical origins of the library and yet completely functional,” prophesied Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology.
Next October, library officials will remove a majority of the books currently housed in Walter and install a digital technology center: a research center focusing on computer topics ranging from software and the Internet to wireless communications and electronic commerce.
“This will be a magnet for digital technology,” Davis said.
When the approximate 20-month construction period ends at the beginning of 2002, Walter will be half digital technology center and half library.
School officials plan to refurbish the library’s lobbies and study rooms to their original state.
“We’re going to restore the architectural grandeur of these spaces,” Kelsey said.
A legacy for students
Since its construction in 1922, students have frequented the library’s study rooms, poring over textbooks and class notes.
Josh Kessen, a College of Liberal Arts junior, found his way to Walter on Thursday to begin his microeconomics reading. Kessen said he stops in the library about twice a week to study.
“I usually come here an hour before tests to do some last-minute studying,” he said.
Kelsey, too, recalled clocking time in Walter as an undergraduate, years before he began his planning career with the library.
“It gets warm in the afternoon,” he said. “I probably spent more time napping in Walter Library than studying.”
Davis also spent time in Walter long before he got a job with the University. He said he frequently used the study spaces to work on his research in chemical engineering and materials science as a faculty member.
“Aside from being hot and noisy, I loved it,” Davis said, adding that the columns and 30-foot ceilings created an atmosphere that drew him to the study rooms. “There’s something about this that inspires scholarship.”
The front lobby and first floor public reading room are targeted for restoration, as are the lobby and three reading rooms on the second floor. Workers will repair water damage on the ceiling, replace the windows and clean the stone and wood details around the building.
Library officials also plan to mount brass lamps down the center of the long wooden reading tables and install chandeliers, keeping with the original style.
While the study rooms have been a center for learning on campus, the stacks — 76 vertical feet of bookshelves packed into narrow, dark aisles in the depths of the library — are a center for University folklore and mischief.
Kelsey said when he was working toward his degree at the University, graduate students and faculty primarily used the stacks. Undergraduates could only enter the stacks if they had a 3.5 grade point average or better and provided the transcript to prove it.
“Otherwise you sat out there … with the unwashed,” he said, pointing to where benches used to stand outside of the stacks entrance.
Library staff would retrieve books for those ineligible to enter.
Eventually the stacks opened to the entire University, launching unlimited mayhem and myth about the dusty stack hallways.
“During the ’60s, the stacks saw more than its share of socially deviant behavior,” Kelsey recalled.
Hoainam Tran, a senior majoring in French, said he’s heard his share of shady stories about the stacks during his three years working in Walter.
A former security guard would tell of ghosts haunting the stacks, but Tran said he was skeptical.
“I think she was just trying to amuse us,” he said.
Other rumors revolve around people living in the isolated corners of the stacks. Last winter Tran found a box of clothes among the books.
He said he also hears of students and patrons having sex and masturbating in the dusty stack aisles, but he takes it with a grain of salt and puts it in perspective.
“Wilson (Library) has weirder stuff,” he said.
The dimly lit maze of bookshelves fosters superstitions and wariness among students. “Frankly, it frightens me,” Kessen said. “If you got lost down there, nobody would know.”
Kelsey said he’s never heard of anyone getting stranded in the stacks, but once he came close. While perusing the library one day, a power outage killed all the lights. Caught in complete darkness, it took Kelsey half an hour to navigate his way to an exit.
Today emergency lights illuminate every hallway, even during power outages.
Bringing in the new
University officials said they expect the construction to propel Walter back to the cutting edge, as it was when it was designed almost eight decades ago by Clarence Johnston, one of the major architects of Northrop Mall.
First, library staff will move the volumes out of Walter library on rolling carts and across the Washington Avenue Bridge.
The education and psychology collections will find a permanent home in Wilson Library; the science and technology books will go to the Archive Research Center on the West Bank, east of Willey Hall. School officials expect construction on the new archives to finish in about a year.
Those moves will clear the way for construction crews who will gut the stacks and completely remove the mammoth network of bookshelves.
“Everything’s going to be torn out,” Kelsey said. “The whole stack core will be gone.”
Kelsey said he’s not sorry to see the stacks go, basically because the stacks are a dangerous fire hazard: “It is an accident waiting to happen. It is a constant concern.”
A small addition will also be constructed on the back of the library, facing Pleasant Street, to erect two emergency staircases complying with fire codes. Additional study rooms will be created between the stairwells.
Johnston himself included a similar addition in early drafts of the library, Kelsey said.
The addition will be the only alteration to the outside appearance of the library.
Inside, the digital technology center will be the new home for the University’s supercomputers, now located on the west side of Interstate 94 on the West Bank.
The center will also store three power walls — 10-by-12 foot computer screens used for scientific projects like visualizing the temperature of the sun, Davis said.
The digital center will research the science and technology of storing and accessing information, Davis said.
While most of the digital center will be for graduate and post-doctoral research, a computer teaching room with 100 stations will be directed toward undergraduates.
Davis also said he encourages visitors and students to check out the center when it’s complete — no transcripts will be required.
The IT administration will also make its permanent home in the new facility. The dean’s office has been temporarily housed in Walter for several years due to lack of room in Lind Hall, its original home, Davis said.
“This is as good a headquarters for IT as any other,” Davis said.
Both Davis and Kelsey said they welcome the blend of antique furnishings and futuristic technology forthcoming to the library.
Davis pointed out that Walter Library is the science and technology library, and therefore a logical hub for digital technology studies.
With this round of repair work and a modernization of technology, Walter Library may last another 75 years, added Kelsey, who was visibly pleased by the prospect.
“To get to work with a building that is this grand and has so much personality doesn’t come around very often,” Kelsey said. “This is just an elegant space.”