Open House

Libraries can be intimidating places. The young James Baldwin thought so. In his autobiographical first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin describes the awe felt by his alter ego, John, when he walked by the New York Public Library:

“He loved this street, not for the people or the shops but for the stone lions that guarded the great main building of the Public Library, a building filled with books and unimaginably vast, and which he had never yet dared to enter.”

library-displayConnie Vinita Dowell, Vanderbilt’s dean of libraries, doesn’t think audacity should be a requirement for passing through the portals of Central Library. Her stewardship of the library’s 35,300-square-foot renovation, scheduled for completion in January, has focused on de-intimidating the patron’s experience. No lions, just pussycats.

“The library should be the hub, the gathering place for the Vanderbilt campus, for faculty, staff and students,” explains Dowell, MLS’79. “We want the students here when they’re not in class.” Dowell also stresses her desire to bring the general Nashville community into the building. But to do so, she says, “the library has to be welcoming as well as easy to use.”

One of the first things Dowell noticed when she arrived on campus in March 2009 was a sign affixed to the old card catalog, then still standing in the main lobby. “It said, ‘Do not use; closed 1985,’” Dowell laughs. “That said something about where we were.”

Other features were less symbolic. The original 1941 building “was constructed for no technology in the current sense,” Dowell says. When modern tech was added, “it had been done incrementally, so it wasn’t well integrated.” Once-grand reading rooms had been infilled as the library’s collections and staff had increased, also contributing to what Dowell perceived as “the general sense of clutter.” The library was clearly due for a makeover.

Provost Richard McCarty subsequently received approval from the Board of Trust for a $6 million renovation of the existing library. “That we made this commitment when our dollars were at their most scarce indicates what a high priority the library is,” McCarty says.


The Parkes Armistead Reading Room, with its vintage sweet-gum paneling and 21st-century lighting, seamlessly blends old and new elements.

To understand the architectural challenges Dowell faced in spending the money, a little history is in order.

Library History 101

The library wasn’t always a top priority for Vanderbilt administrators. According to historian Paul Conkin in Gone with the Ivy: A Biography of Vanderbilt University, the first chancellor, Landon C. Garland, who was also professor of physics and astronomy, was more concerned with first-rate laboratories. Of the $70,000 Garland had available for equipping the new school in the 1870s, he spent the bulk on scientific equipment, and only $10,000 on books and journals.

When the university opened for classes in 1875, the library consisted of 6,000 volumes occupying two rooms in what was originally called Old Main (later renamed College Hall and then Kirkland Hall). And there the main library remained for more than six decades.

The construction of Neely Auditorium in 1925 allowed the librarians to take over the chapel in College Hall for a reading room, but this seated only 120. Finally, in 1939, library director A. Frederick Kuhlman sat down with architect Henry Hibbs to plan what was to become the Joint University Library. The building was so designated because it was intended to serve not only Vanderbilt, but also Peabody and Scarritt colleges. This shared arrangement continued until the merger of Peabody with Vanderbilt in 1979 and the transformation of Scarritt College into the Scarritt-Bennett Center for conferences and retreats in 1988.


Left: Vanderbilt’s library in its early days on the third floor of Kirkland Hall. Right: The geology department’s exhibit room displayed mineral and skeletal artifacts.

Librarian and architect chose the Collegiate Gothic style that Hibbs had already employed for Neely Auditorium and Alumni Memorial, Buttrick, Calhoun and Garland halls on the Vanderbilt campus. The handsome building of Flemish bond brick on a base of limestone ashlar masonry was dedicated in December of 1941. It was the first centrally air-conditioned building on campus, not primarily for human comfort but to maximize the shelf life of the books.

Some features of the Central Library, however, would subsequently prove to be less advanced. The stacks in the library were originally closed. Undergraduates submitted request forms to library staff, who conveyed the pieces of paper via pneumatic tubes to “runners” in the stacks. These runners fetched the materials and placed them on conveyor belts to send them to the circulation desk.

Thus, the stacks betray little regard for human comfort—or claustrophobia. They feature low ceilings, with minimal overhead space above the shelves, and lack natural light, which is bad for books. The artificial illumination is stark. Because faculty and graduate students had direct access to books and serials—and, as scholars, apparently were expected to focus solely on the life of the mind—their carrels were wedged within the Spartan stacks. (During my graduate student days, I called the carrels “the gulag.”) Only the large reading rooms, with their sweet-gum paneling and large windows, were finished as public spaces because that’s where the undergraduate public was supposed to be. And the library’s stairs and elevators were not planned to accommodate patrons in significant numbers.

It was the first centrally air-conditioned building on campus, not primarily for human comfort but for the books. Undergraduates submitted request forms to library staff, who conveyed the pieces of paper via pneumatic tubes to “runners” in the stacks.

In 1969 the university added the H. Fort Flowers graduate wing, named after the Vanderbilt alumnus and successful engineer who contributed $250,000 for construction. The wing provided room for 350,000 volumes, housing for Special Collections, and new faculty studies. Designed in the Brutalist style by the Boston firm of Shepley Bullfinch Richardson & Abbott, the Flowers wing was attached to the old library facade on 21st Avenue in a manner most would consider less than felicitous.

Chancellor Alexander Heard was one of them, says former university architect David Allard. “During our annual walking tours of the campus,” Allard recalls, “we’d pass by the place where the library buildings come together. Chancellor Heard would always shake his head and say: ‘I remember standing at this spot and being told by the architect how the new and old would complement each other.’”

The visual collision between old body and new wing reflected the lack of functional integration between them. Any renovation thus had to address the problems posed by the library’s complex architectural history.

Polling the Public

Before Dowell could develop a renovation plan, she had to discover the unmet expectations of users. She initiated an extensive faculty survey. “More than half responded; we got comments like ‘oppressive’ and ‘scary’—just the kind of thing you want to hear,” Dowell laughs.


Walls of the library café, still under construction, will display recycled fronts of the old card catalog.

To plumb student opinion, Dowell worked with Vanderbilt Student Government Presidents Lori Murphy, Wyatt Smith and others to organize focus groups. The groups toured the building, then talked and wrote things on flip charts. “Dean Dowell gave the students an open canvas on which they could paint their picture of a library,” Murphy says. “That was exciting.”

The resulting consensus among faculty and students envisioned a more aesthetically pleasing library with natural light and views to the campus outside. There was also broad agreement that ways of learning have diversified in the 21st century. No longer are libraries merely repositories of printed materials. Thus, one key demand was for more power outlets for laptops and other electronic gear.

Learning no longer happens solely in isolation. In addition to quiet zones for individual study, therefore, respondents expressed the need for collaborative environments, noisier spaces for group work and socializing. Lounge chairs for leisure reading and more formal seating were viewed as equally desirable. In addition, space for readings and lectures as well as one for coffee and snacks—the Starbucks syndrome—were on the want list.


Space for readings, lectures and classes is a library priority. Here, students prepare for a class in drawing and composition, led by Michael Aurbach, professor of art.

Less tangible requests also emerged. At one focus group meeting, Dowell says, “an engineering undergraduate, who’d been silent until the very end, talked for 10 minutes about the impact of great public spaces on our lives, how significant they are for the spirit. That affirmed for me the importance of respecting the history of the building by restoring the reading rooms to their former grandeur.”


Dowell had to work within the existing building envelope to implement change, yet the users were telling her the library needed more people places. She therefore asked her staff to evaluate what the library contained.

“The librarians made a huge effort in a short time frame to select from the collections what could go to the off-campus archive,” says Keith Loiseau, university architect and a member of the renovation design team. “And then they had to figure out the relocation of the remaining materials.”

Before Connie Dowell could develop a renovation plan, she initiated an extensive survey. “We got comments like ‘oppressive’ and ‘scary’—just the kind of thing you want to hear.”

The staff studied which books were infrequently used and which materials were available electronically. “We moved out more than 50,000 bound periodicals and microforms and shifted 75,000 additional volumes,” Dowell says. “We’ll store journals available online off-site.”

To free up space, Dowell also had to figure out which staff members could work productively outside the library proper. “It takes all our staff to run this library, but not every person needs to interact daily with students and faculty,” she explains. “Those who can do their jobs electronically—the people in technical services and cataloging—moved to the Baker Building nearby, along with the staff for the TV News Archive.”

Paving a Path

The design team Dowell assembled to plan and implement the renovation, in addition to Loiseau, included the Nashville firm of Gilbert McLaughlin Casella Architects. This firm had previous experience with the Heard Library, having already designed the renovation and expansion of the building’s Divinity Library. Orion Building Corp., another campus veteran, was retained as general contractor.

The architects focused on several key issues: access from 21st Avenue, a more comprehensible path between this entrance and the main lobby, and exploiting the space between spaces (i.e., the corridors).


Interactive exhibit screens help make the rich resources of the TV News Archive accessible.

Designers enclosed the windswept tunnel between the 1969 and 1941 buildings in glass, turning it into a display gallery with interactive touch screens that feature artifacts and images from Special Collections and University Archives. During my tour I called up footage of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. at Vanderbilt Impact symposiums.

To heal the fault line between the Flowers Wing and the old building, the architects used a vacant elevator shaft in the wing to provide, for the first time, direct elevator access from the 21st Avenue side of the building to the floor of the main lobby.

In the Flowers Wing, Special Collections had always been “back of the house, because you had to navigate around the elevator bank to get to it,” says Kent McLaughlin, principal with the architectural firm. The new design opens up a clear passageway to this area, pulling the collections into the library fold.

One strategy on which Dowell settled to help the Nashville community recognize the library as a public resource was a robust and revolving exhibit program. “Vanderbilt has rich collections,” she explains. “Most of the press has gone to the Fugitive and Agrarian materials, which are justly famous. But there’s so much more in Special Collections.”

“So often we fill up old space and then build new space without evaluating what could have been done without in the old. The challenge of the bad economy turned out to be a positive thing.”

—Keith Loiseau, university architect

Dowell notes in particular the TV News Archive, which contains broadcasts by the major networks going back to 1968, as well as significant samplings from CNN and Fox. She also points with pride to the recent acquisition of the Julian Goodman papers, which reflect the history and business of broadcasting from 1945, when Goodman started as a news writer, until his retirement as head of NBC News in 1979. “These archives are an incredible resource,” she says. “They show how we covered history.”

In order to display materials from these and other collections, the architects worked with local company Anode Inc. on the interactive exhibit screens and with Laura McCoy of Tollsen McCoy on the more traditional display cases and lighting.

The architects laid out the exhibit areas along the path from the 21st Avenue entrance—with its newly glazed gallery—through the corridor leading from the elevator to the main lobby. The displays thus function as a sort of narrative thread, pulling people through the library.

The main exhibit space is in the lobby, which is, after all, the library’s prime real estate. Five interactive screens and seven pedestal cases for traditional artifacts will stand on the former sites of the card catalog and the reference desk.

“Our charge was to open up the lobby and make it a significant public space,” McLaughlin says. “The exhibits will definitely contribute to that effect.”

Other aspects of the lobby rehab include a consolidated service desk to give patrons one-stop shopping for information. A computer area will be returned to its original purpose as a browsing nook, allowing the blinds to be raised and light to flood the space.


In all of the library’s public spaces, one key demand was for more power outlets for laptops and other devices.

On the northern end of the lobby, the restored Parkes Armistead Reading Room is enhanced by the addition of an enclosed instruction space. On the lobby’s southern side, what had been a warren of staff cubicles has been transformed into a community room—available for special events and receptions—and a café opening out to a terrace next to Library Lawn. As a nod to history, the walls of the café will be adorned with the recycled fronts of the old card catalog.

The improvement most immediately visible on the eighth floor of the Flowers Wing is the light streaming through the windows. The faculty carrels that once encircled the perimeter—and blocked the sunlight—have been replaced with transparent offices for the librarians who most often consult with faculty and students. These offices flank open study space, and large group study and conference rooms.

“Adding all this transparency not only makes the eighth floor a more pleasant place, but also helps with orientation,” McLaughlin says. “As soon as you get off the elevator, you’re able to look through the glass and see where you are.”

During all their planning of the renovation, which added 584 new public power outlets and 200 additional seats, the architects kept a keen eye on sustainability features, adding water-saving plumbing fixtures and energy-saving mechanical systems.

“The target with the project is LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] gold certification,” the second highest ranking, Loiseau says. “But to me the most sustainable feature, although it won’t get us any LEED credits, is that we didn’t build a new building; we recycled what we had. So often we fill up old space and then build new space without evaluating what could have been done without in the old. The challenge of the bad economy turned out to be a positive thing.”


Connie Dowell, dean of libraries, drew on Wyatt Smith, BS’10, young alumni trustee and former Vanderbilt Student Government president, to promote discussion about what students hoped to see in the library.

The Last, Best Job

For Provost McCarty, perhaps the most positive thing is that he got Connie Vinita Dowell to come to Vanderbilt. “Connie was my first hire as provost, and I’m confident my choice will stand the test of time,” McCarty says. “Her passion and experience made her an obvious choice.”

What’s not so initially obvious is why Dowell wanted to come to Nashville. Before she took up the deanship at Vanderbilt, she served as dean of the library and information access at San Diego State University. Her husband, Stephen Miller, is head of the Geological Data Center at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. Trading one of the most temperate climates in the world for the hot and humid summers of Middle Tennessee—especially the oven of 2010—seems counterintuitive.

For Dowell, however, it was payback time. “Vanderbilt gave me my education,” she explains. She was awarded a full fellowship to study library science at Peabody College and received her master’s degree in 1979, the year that Peabody merged with Vanderbilt. Dowell worked in the reference divisions of both the central and the science and engineering libraries. “So this is a special place for me.

“This will also be my last job, and it’s a dream come true,” Dowell continues. “I think that architecture can inspire, but the building had gotten to the point that it didn’t inspire us. I hope that now it will.”

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