By Gianmaria Franchini
No speeches were given. Laudatory spectacles were saved for a later time. Any plans for a ribbon-cutting ceremony were set aside: They now gather dust on the new compact shelving units at the McHenry Library addition.
The university practiced self-restraint at the opening of the mammoth, four-story McHenry addition in early April. The only real bustle came from staff members struggling to relocate the old building’s one-and-a-half million volumes to their new home over spring break. The completion of a modern library — a project almost two decades in waiting — presents a new chapter in the history of UC Santa Cruz, and yet the addition is only the first phase of a larger library renovation project.
Still, completion of the addition sheds some light on what the future of McHenry promises to bring to students.
The goal of the library project team, which included architects, faculty, library and campus staff, was to create a new space for the modern student. The advent of the Internet and all of the subsequent changes in media and information access has not, as could be generally perceived, made libraries a thing of the past: clumsy monoliths for the age of catalogue cards and bookish scholars.
“The old model of a student studying with a book, tucking away in a quiet nook and being away from other people [is dated],” development officer Margaret Gordon said, pointing to an office that will become a furnished, web-connected space for students once the library project is complete. “The new trend seems to be to have students working in small groups collaboratively and with laptops and headsets, and that’s why we see a space like this one as an eventual study space.”
There are telltale signs that more work needs to be done: the sparse landscaping surrounding the addition is only beginning to take shape. Hardy shrubs and cherry trees are coming slowly into place. The sounds of construction still fill the air because the now-gutted McHenry main building is in the initial stages of a two-year renovation and seismic retrofitting process. The ribbon-cutting will have to wait at least that long.
Once the two buildings are integrated, the current entrance will become a sort of backdoor service entry, and the courtyard of the old building will once again welcome students into the library and lead them into a new global-themed café and information commons space. Much of the retrofitted space will house classrooms for the mathematics and writing departments, and temporary offices lining the addition’s western walls will be used as private study spaces.
Some students might feel a touch of melancholy at the loss of the peeling-paint and timeworn charm of the old McHenry, but the addition and renovation project cures some library ills. Gordon jokes that the old library was state-of-the-art for 1975 and better prepared to take on an LP collection than videos and forms of digital media. Space was also a very legitimate concern, Humanities dean Georges Van Den Abbeele said.
“We were literally running out of space,” Van Den Abbeele said. “And that limits what you can do. The northern UCs have a facility in Richmond where they store books they don’t have room for, and that’s sort of a tragedy because it’s just this big locked warehouse that no one ever goes to. Also, the tremendous design features — the lighting, the air, the vistas that are enabled by the new addition — all create a more conducive environment to enjoy consulting and reading books.”
McHenry’s special collections department, which includes a variety of unique works — ranging from a distinguished collection of 16th-century Italian prints, to artwork by San Francisco beat poet extraordinaire Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to 2,000 square feet worth of recently acquired Grateful Dead archival memorabilia — will be given a new climate-controlled storage space in the renovated building and an updated archive with improved search features. Partial print collections will also be made available online in conjunction with the Google Books Library Project.
One of head librarian Ginny Steel’s driving goals was to preserve a fundamental human element to the library’s information access capabilities, said Astrid von Soosten, assistant director of library development. Although students rely more heavily on technology and virtual spaces to study, real people are needed to run the library and to give dynamic help.
“Something else that is very special about [Steel’s] approach to running this library is that she is not taking away the human interaction at info commons or wherever it might be,” von Soosten said. “It’s becoming ever more clear to us that when humans talk to each other, things get done so much faster and on a broader, deeper level than what you would have with just asking a question over the Internet. The fact that students will have real places and real people to go to with questions is part of the commitment to undergraduate education.”
While giving City on a Hill Press a tour of the library addition, von Soosten and Gordon discussed structural details of the building the way parents would talk about their child. They took measured steps through the cavernous building and pointed out its most striking features: the fourth-floor reading porches, open to the air with only perforated wire netting for protection; the spacious basement media library, with viewing and meeting rooms around every corner and walls adorned with donated art; and compact movable shelving units decorated with patterned sugarcane inlays — one of the library’s rare decorative features.
Shafts of soft daylight pierce through the sprawling ceiling-to-floor windows that make up the addition’s entire wall face. Seen from three stories up, the sentinel redwoods that surround the library site sway silently and invite the eye to scenic ocean vistas.
When well-known architect Jeffrey Freeman, who has built libraries on college campuses across the country, came to UCSC to welcome Steel in 2007, he discussed the changing role of the modern university library. The notion that learning is a social phenomenon should be at the forefront of university architecture, Freeman said. Libraries are not being “designed around information — they’re being designed around how people learn,” he said.
Once the library project is complete, planners hope that the new building will speak to that end. Not only will it be wired for 21st-century use — with Internet access points spilling out past the front lawn — it has been planned as a hub of campus activity. Campus architect and former UCSC undergraduate Frank Zwart worked closely with Portland-based library design team Boora Architects.
“It’s not like the 1930s where Princeton and Yale — and to a lesser degree Harvard — were doing everything in Collegiate Gothic because Gothic brought the learning of the Middle Ages into the environment,” Zwart said. “I think that libraries have lightyeared beyond the notion of a place where a scholar goes to a book and is alone. Thirty or 40 years ago that kind of quiet sanctum is what people had in mind for library design, but now the notion is that the resources of a library bring people together.”
The industrial aesthetic of the new McHenry architecture, with piping and venting unabashedly exposed, is a cost-based phenomenon. Amenities like “furniture, certain technical upgrades, the café or the reading plaza, landscaping” must be purchased with private donations, Gordon said. State funding does not cover anything but essential functionality.
Still, architecture affects the methods by which students learn and professors teach, and that idea was kept in mind while the library was being designed.
“When I was in architecture school my thesis advisor had said, ‘A city is where a little boy walking around decides what he wants to do for the rest of his life.’ That’s the sort of thing that’s going on at a university all the time. I think that it’s with that kind of interaction that architecture can help in putting a university library together, but I don’t think you will sense it here until the whole project is complete.”
Physically and figuratively, McHenry is the heart of the UCSC campus. Bret Caton, the library construction project manager, spoke of it as such, noting that the half-completed stairway that now leads from the foot of the undulating lawn to the edge of current construction is like a main artery, directing traffic from Science Hill and upper campus down to the music and theater and visual arts on the lower side.
“There were many talks about [the library] becoming a sort of crossroads,” Caton said. “There’s a very strong north-south pedestrian access that passes through the building and we’ve very much tried to emphasize that. When the renovation is completed the staircase will pass through the lobby of the existing building. There will be a welcoming, large lobby and the architects also realized how important the inner courtyard is to the character of the existing building, and they worked very hard to maintain that. The building will become a very active gathering and traffic point.”
Not only is the library conceived of as the “heart” of the campus, sending and receiving knowledge and students to discreet parts of the campus, it also functions as an intellectual center. Noting that a state-of-the-art library could improve campus ranking and visibility, Dean of Humanities Van Den Abbeele spoke excitedly about the possibilities the new McHenry presents to the humanities department and to the campus across the board.
“I think a major research library is always the center point of any major university campus — and ours is dead center,” he said. “And major research collection improves every aspect of a university. For the humanities, the library is our laboratory. We work with books, manuscripts and documents of all kinds. The library serves a double mission in that regard [of] accessibility and preservation. Ultimately, it improves the capacity to teach by making books available that otherwise aren’t.”
Students are urged to share their reactions to the new building in a permanently placed notebook in the addition’s first floor. Many responses are positive and praise the library’s inspiring environment and ample space. A hint of disappointment is also visible: a number of comments lament the loss of the old McHenry’s nostalgic atmosphere, and currently etched onto the first-floor bathroom mirror are the words, “This place used to be beautiful.”
Students who work the circulation desk seemed to be uncomfortable with the library’s temporary organization, but also lauded the new building.
“I like [the addition] in the sense that we definitely needed a new space,” library employee and second-year classical studies major Kara Skinner said. “At the old McHenry we had one group study area, and the rest was sort of, ‘Be quiet! Do the work on your own!’ It’s now a more welcoming environment, but it also really feels like an interim space right now – everything is temporary. I think this place has a lot of promise, but some things still need to be worked out.”
Angel Subdiaz, a fourth-year Latin American studies major who has worked at McHenry circulation for two years, was simply happy to have a set of consistently working elevators.
“The ceilings at the McHenry were so low,” he said. “The walls were yellowing — it had a real bad vibe to it, an old school vibe. I personally enjoy just having working elevators and open space. Also, I don’t know if people are aware, but people have gotten stuck in the new compact-shelving units.”
Gordon, who has worked at the McHenry since 1970, was sure of only one thing. “It will be the newest library, so it will be the coolest library,” she said. “At least for a while.”