Our new library

June 5, 2011 • 4:46 am

On May 16, the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library opened at the University of Chicago, right across the street from my lab.  And about time, too: parking near my building has been scant for the two years of construction.  The library, a Fuller-like glass dome designed by Helmut Jahn, with the stored books extending several floors underground, has been hailed as an architectural marvel.

Most intriguing is how the books are retrieved, described in the video below.  They’re sequestered in big bins, and huge cranes retrieve each book by grabbing its bin and hoisting the whole schmear up to circulation, where the book is plucked out. Presumably the cranes then lower the bin back underground. It does seem like an enormous use of energy to get a single book, but the University simply ran out of onsite space for book storage.  The librarians and University made a decision—a wise one, I think—to keep the books on campus rather than store them at a remote site, which would make them hard to access.

Here’s the dome from the outside:

I visited the place eight days ago.  It was a rainy day and so it was a bit gloomy inside the dome.  The students studying at the tables looked dwarfed and uncomfortable.  It was also a chilly day and quite cold inside. Note to University: get some heat in there!

My own building, a lovely Gothic-style construction, encrusted with spires and gargoyles, can be seen through the window, above the cylindrical fixtures on the right:

Here’s the futuristic circulation and book-retrieval desk:

Finally, a University-made video that shows you how books are retrieved:

It’s a nice-looking minimalist structure, and worth a visit, but I would not study or work in there—it’s too sterile and forbidding.  The older library to which it’s connected (Regenstein) is much more congenial, with cozy nooks and comfy chairs. The Chicago Tribune notes the pluses and minuses:

The design brings a welcome jolt of modernity to a campus that has sometimes seemed afraid to stray from its neo-Gothic roots. Here, architecture and time move forward boldly but respectfully — without the jarring crayon palette of orange, purple, yellow and pink at the adjoining Max Palevsky Residential Commons.

Still, there are faults, including the oversized, billboard-like letters that spell out the library’s name on the concrete beam. Thicker landscaping (perhaps with thorns?) will have to be added so people can’t climb the dome, as some already have done. In addition, a light-filtering ceramic dot pattern on the upper portion of the dome’s glass makes the dome look darker, less transparent and less delicately articulated than Jahn’s renderings suggested. Only at night, when it glows from within, does the library truly become a minimalist bubble.

45 thoughts on “Our new library

  1. Wow! That is fantastic. I suddenly wish I were back in college. I’m definitely going to be visiting the library.


  2. So can you not just browse the stack? Your university must have plenty of space! UCL is in the middle of planning a modernisation of the library space, but there are constraints using a building that is architecturally significant & protected – the Flaxman Gallery features in several films including Inception (Nolan is a UCL alumnus). Our store is a van drive away out in Essex. My particular – & probably doomed – site, is, er, “compact and bijou”. UCL is pursuing the electronic route – it seems students do not want books as they involve too much effort.
    It seems bizarre to create such a bold – attratctive looking – dome space without thinking through how it will be in the cold Chicago winter or the hot summer – that will be the test. It would be like reading in a railway station.

    1. Browsing the stacks is definitely something I would miss. I suppose as the sheer volume of books increases it becomes impractical…but still!

  3. I completely understand why they did this…but one of my biggest joys at libraries comes from going to a section and thumbing through the books there looking for ones I think are worth carrying home.

    Unless they’re also scanning these books, there’s no way you can do anything like that any more in this library — and, for that matter, we don’t have user interfaces for scanned books that can quite compare with the real thing yet.

    It would have been much nicer if they had had the room for more traditional high-density shelving. And there’s plenty of room for technology there to help…imagine RFID tags in the books so the system can identify both misfiled and missing books, combined with a smartphone app that will direct you to the shelf you want. The system could not only direct patrons to misfiled books but also alert library staff to the problem long before a patron had a chance to know something was amiss. Punch in the book / category you want at the catalog terminal, and you get turn-by-turn directions to the right spot and, if possible, the high-density racks have already automatically expanded for you by the time you get there.

    Ah, well. I hope this library works at least as well as its designers think it will.



  4. Hardly worth criticizing since it’s a done deal, but what happens when one of the cranes breaks? I guess it’s just too expensive to pay students to run slips anymore.

  5. Here I thought we are in the digital book age. A brick and glass library addition is necessary?

  6. Which crate holds the Ark of the Covenant?

    This is like an old “how we’ll live in the year 2000” predictions come to life.

    In the future, when paper books are dead, the system can be modified into low-rent student housing.

  7. Another voice in the wilderness crying “But you can’t BROWSE the shelves!!” As an undergrad, I wasted quite a bit of time when I was supposed to be doing problem sets or cramming for finals, down in the stacks — ‘cuz there was this interesting-looking book, totally irrelevant to my coursework, right at eye level!

    What can I say? There are way worse OCDs to have….

      1. OK, poor choice of verb. The point is, it was somewhat important at the time that I be focussing on something else….

        Still, I managed to graduate anyway, and I remember some of the books I skimmed through, whereas the problem sets and exams are mercifully forgotten. So I guess that’s a win.

  8. I’m so pleased to see that the new building is called a library, not a resource centre or learning commons.

    When the sun shines there will be lots of light: sunshine and books what a wonderful combination.

  9. Sure hope the one you guys have works better than the one we had a CSU. The idea/concept was swell and it looked kinda neat, but any time I would pass by it wasn’t working right and it was configured in such a way that live people were still needed to tend to how it would grab the books.

  10. Eastern Michigan University has had this system for a dozen years, mainly for older titles (10+ years old); newer books still remain in open stacks. Once or twice a semester there might be a short interruption to service in one or another of the three aisles, but all in all it works well.

    The biggest drawback is that many students don’t realize just how quick and easy it is to get a book from storage and might be too intimidated to request what they need; for the librarians at the reference desk, it’s always “No, no, it will only take a few minutes! Here, let me show you how!”

  11. This may appear to be an intelligent solution to an, admittedly, knotty problem.

    It’s a disaster.

    It’s going to be an unpleasant place to work or study, either gloomy or impossibly bright, and with un-welcoming decor. How’d you like to be in there with a foot of snow on it? It will feel like being in a gray cave.

    Climate control costs are going to be staggering, if they can even keep the temperature stable. Insulation? What insulation?

    The book retrieval system is even worse. The random placement of books is space efficient, but it is a disaster waiting to happen. Once a book is misplaced, and it will happen, it is gone forever. A broken crane or two and all the books are inaccessible.

    I don’t see any indication of a human-usable backup system.

    What were these people thinking?

      1. What about snow? Maybe they have special melters. Of course, the dome needed to be designed to carry a snow load, but the cave atmosphere could be bothersome.

  12. I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before the first drunken footprints show up on the dome.

    1. The news article linked to in the post states that the dome has already been climbed, and suggests landscaping with thorny plants. 🙂

  13. Another rich’s couple’s fantasy. Obviously it’s most important role is to be a billboard (branding) for the donors. Ho hum.

    “A fool and his money are invited everywhere.”

    The prob with rich folks is no one ever tells the “no.” Even an “elite” university.

    1. Really. Joe and Rika couldn’t have just given the money – they had to make it about them in the process?

      It’s like the University of Washington – every new building that goes up is named The ___ Gates Whatever.

  14. All that light and not a single plant to be seen. Regardless, expect the botanical types are already eyeing it as a greenhouse. Do the panels open to let air in?

    1. It definitely needs plants, if someone will take care of them. But it also looks as if it’s full of hard furnishings. I love modern design, but it has to be comfortable too. I’d love to see this in person.

    2. Have never seen the inside before, but I agree that it seems very unfriendly at the moment. But plants! That could look awesome!

  15. I applaud the generosity of the donors, and having a new library building. I hope it has small group meeting rooms. I’m guessing within the library’s lifetime, physical books will be be replaced by e-books and libraries will be the place for a study group to meet.

  16. As a former UC alum, I have yo join the chorus of “you can’t browse the stacks”? I spent many happy hours as an undergrad and sometime grad wandering the stacks in the Reg’ and to a lesser extent Crerar, and often found books which were relevant to my areas of interest. In those days the catalogue had just been computerized, and searching wasn’t always fruitful. Although I love the Newberry on the North Side, I was always disappointed that I couldn’t roam the stacks.

    It does look uncomfortable, too, and I have to wonder how they are going to keep it cool when the sun is shining.

    The bubble continues the horrible melange of modern buildings surrounding the quads: Pick (perhaps the ugliest building in Chicago), Hinds, Cummins, and Brain Research. The University always looks better in the Quads than out.

  17. My thought is that browsing the stacks is useful for research. Here, you will have to know exactly which book you want in advance. No accidental discoveries by looking at the books NEXT to the the book you wanted, or where it was supposed to be…
    I just have to agree with the guy who said it looks like a disaster. Poor Chicago students. =P

  18. In case some folks don’t know it, most electronic catalogs allow you to browse by call number. Just do a call number search on a known title and you’ll get a list that you can browse both forward and backward. I’ll admit it doesn’t have the charm of browsing the stacks, but you still have discoverability.

    1. I did not know that, and that is some consolation, I suppose. But can you look at more than just titles? Only if the books are scanned, I suppose, and even then, it’s not the same as leafing through them.

      Thanks for the info, tho!

  19. There appears to be a weak link at the time the book is put back into a bin. The video shows the librarian scanning the book and immediately placing it into a bin, but in real life there will be a delay between scanning the book and the bin being delivered.

    How many bins can be up on the surface at one time? If it’s only one, there will be a bottleneck getting books into and out of the storage system. If it’s more than one at a time, there’s a real risk that a librarian will put a book into the wrong bin.

    Surely they can do better than this. The storage density is impressive, but at the cost of localizing books by subject matter. Use of barcodes for identification makes it hard to automate – the librarian was using a handheld reader. They need some technique which can identify _all_ the books in a bin, at the same time. Even my local library uses RFID or similar to automatically identify books when checking out.

    My first thought on seeing the racks of bins was, “they need to scan these books”. Reading a scanned book isn’t so convenient, but it is perhaps better than having a book end up in the wrong bin, and unable to locate because the system didn’t sufficiently automate identification and placement of books into bins.

  20. …a Fuller-like glass dome…

    I know geodesic domes. Some of my best friends had a geodesic dome. That is NO geodesic dome.


    Not knowing the campus, I thought the Regenstein was a parking garage at first sight. I’m sure I’d prefer its interior, though, to this new boil.

  21. Generous would be an anonymous donation with no strings attached. This is balm to a weak identify and sense of self.

    Of course, we also protest the Booth donation. Large donations just distort the integrity and “community of equals” ethos so important to the advance of knowledge.

    But what’s knowledge against millions of dollars?

  22. The Monroe County Library in Bloomington (IN) had a robotic book retrieval system like this in the around 1974-1975. However, the books of general interest were available from regular shelves on the main floor. It was only more specialized books, or books that did not circulate as much, that were shelved on trays that were retrieved mechanically.

    I agree that open stacks are the most fun because you never know what you might come across–such as noted scientists’ Ph.D. theses or obscure, interesting books.

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