The Complex, and Exciting, Future of Alderman Library: Q&A with John Unsworth

Alderman Library entrance steps

Alderman Library is scheduled to undergo a major renovation in the near future. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The University of Virginia’s Alderman Library will undergo a complete renovation in the near future, a complicated process that will begin this summer and take about five years. The original building opened in 1938 – funded in part by a Depression-era federal Public Works Administration grant – and the “new” stacks were added in the 1960s.

University Librarian and Dean of Libraries John Unsworth recently took time to lay out the challenges and opportunities this major renovation brings. He’s especially interested in getting ideas from faculty and students about what they think Alderman, UVA’s central library, should look like as the University heads into its third century.

He and the University Library Committee have set up several meetings, beginning Wednesday, to hear from the University community. Following up on a town hall held in December, this month’s meetings will feature the project’s architecture firm, HBRA. The public is welcome to attend, although faculty and students are invited to specific sessions.

John Unsworth headshot

John Unsworth, University librarian and dean of libraries. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Q. What’s the importance of renovating Alderman Library as UVA heads into its third century?

A. The core issue, and the issue that’s been raised to the state legislature as the reason for doing this project, is life-safety issues. And those are quite real. This is a building that has no sprinklers anywhere in it, no fire suppression at all.

And beyond that, it’s got plumbing and wiring that are, at this point, 70-going-on-80 years old, and they are really past the end of life. We can’t fix basic infrastructural building systems without fully renovating the building. You have to get inside the walls. You have to pull up the asbestos floor tiles that are throughout the building. We have to deal with all of that.

And any time you put a certain amount of money into a building project beyond a certain percentage of the value of the building, you’re obliged to bring the building up to code. This project is certainly going to trigger that threshold.

There’s really no way to bring the stacks up to code. The old stacks, the bookshelves are built into the floor and the ceiling and they are the building support. There are no columns that are carrying load distributed across the old stacks, which is why you can’t move them. The new stacks, they have separate columns that support the floors.

The building design of the three-quarters of the building that is not stacks is actually very flexible, a very durable design.

So those are real, serious issues that need to be dealt with. They give us a great opportunity to rethink a lot of things about the library and it gives us, I would say, an opportunity to restore it to something like its original condition, only with updated innards.

I think this will give us an opportunity to put an entrance to the building facing the town. Having an entrance level on the north side of the building on the hill, I think, will actually help make the Grounds more accessible. You’d be able to enter the building there, go up on an elevator and come out on the Lawn level. So if you’re in a wheelchair, for example, I think that will make getting onto the Grounds from, say, the parking garage or something like that considerably easier.

And we can bring some things in that aren’t here now that should be – like our conservation lab, which is over in the Dell. That really needs to be in this building. And I hope we can make that a point of interest probably on the entry level, where people entering the building get to walk by and look in and see the interesting things that they do. And the Rare Book School has printing presses. There’s a whole lot of interesting stuff that is frequently in use and could be in use in spaces that are visible to passers-by.

Q. Do you envision there will still be stacks and carrels?

A. There will still be study carrels and lots of other kinds of study spaces – much better user spaces, better spaces for individual study, for group study, for collaboration. I don’t think we will organize the stacks in the way that they’re organized now. I don’t think we’re going to rebuild a thing that looks like that.

I think we will probably distribute some collections throughout the building. The carrying capacity of the floor in the rest of the building is not nearly what it is in the stacks, so we can’t load up the other three-quarters of Alderman with book stacks.

What we can do – we can put smaller collections around the rest of the building, and new construction will support compact shelving on any level. We’re going to be adding compact shelving in Clemons, as well, starting this summer.

Q. What is compact shelving?

A. Have you ever seen these shelves where, say, you have a row of shelves, but only one aisle? If you want to move that aisle, you push a button on the stacks and the stacks all move to make an aisle somewhere else. You can have much more high-density book storage and still have it accessible to users. You can have things in call number order in a pretty large collection in one place.

Q. What has to happen to prepare for this renovation?

A. The sequence with respect to the collections looks like this: The University funded an enabling project for the renovation, the expansion of Ivy Stacks – that’s happening now and will be completed later in the spring. It will double the amount of size that’s available for near-site, high-density storage. That’s not user-accessible because you have to get the books on cherry pickers, and we don’t let users drive cherry pickers. That will create space for the temporary relocation of the 2.5 million items, the physical items, that are in this building.

When Ivy Stacks is done, we’ll start moving those 2.5 million items. Some of them will go to Clemons and some of them will go to Ivy Stacks. The circulating collection on Central Grounds that will be available to users during the renovation is going to be in Clemons.

In order to make that work, there’s another enabling project which starts this summer. They’re going to shut Clemons down for the summer, because they need to install HVAC units. We’re going to take that opportunity to start doing the demolition on the first floor in Clemons to make space for adding a whole bunch of this compact shelving, on grade on the first floor. We think that will give us space for about 750,000 volumes in Clemons. That selection will be made pretty much entirely on the basis of what we predict will circulate.

Q. You can tell what books have the highest circulation?

A. Yes. And people will often say, “Circulation is not the only measure of use” – and that’s true. People pick up books, look at them, use them in the stacks and then put them back. My message to those people is: Please put those books in the shelving area and don’t do us the favor of putting them back on the shelf, because when we pick books up from the shelving area, we scan them and that counts as a “use.” So if somebody’s picked it up and moved it, we know it’s been used. But if somebody picks it up and puts it back on the shelf, we don’t know that it’s been used. And there’s no way for us to find that out.

Q. Some say if you don’t have the books there, then you don’t get this on-the-spot looking around and finding what else is there.

A. We added a feature to our online catalog in the last six months or so that’s meant to address part of that issue. If you look up something in our catalog, when you find that book, it will have a little colorful icon at the bottom of the record. If you click that, you see that book in its call number context with the other books that are around it that are in our collections. You can just basically scroll that shelf to the left or to the right as far as you want to go through the classification system and have a browsing view of the collections that’s virtual.

It has the added advantage over the experience in real life of showing you the books that are checked out, something you don’t see when you’re looking at the physical shelves. I think it is an interesting feature of this virtual shelf browser.

Q. Who is involved in the planning and design of the renovation?

A. There’s a project committee that has been meeting practically weekly since I got here a year and a half ago that includes Dick Minturn from the Provost Office as a space planner for the provost; Kate Meyer from Facilities Management, who’s the project manager on this and trail boss for the committee; Alice Raucher and Connie Warnock from the Office of the Architect; and Esther Onega from the library staff – she’s our point person on the logistics of all this. We added English professor Elizabeth Fowler to that group for the architect selection process. She joined for the selection process because we wanted A, to make sure that we had faculty representation in that process, and B, because Elizabeth herself has an architectural background.

We picked HBRA, a Chicago architectural firm. They were the unanimous choice of the group that reviewed those proposals – that was a larger group than what I’ve just described. It included other people from Facilities.

HBRA just did a major renovation project at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University and also the Bass Library at Yale. They did the renovation of the Deering Library at Northwestern University recently. They’ve got a lot of experience working with historic structures. They came in, I think, with perhaps the most realistic understanding of the aesthetic constraints under which they will operate on a UVA Central Grounds project, which is good.

Q. When will the renovation start?

A. They [HBRA] have between now and April to get enough work done to present a concept for the project and some schematics to the Board of Visitors for board approval. That needs to happen before it can go to the legislature for appropriation. The process of board review and [going through] the legislature will take 10 months.

That’ll be a 10-month window when we’re not doing much, because the money hasn’t been appropriated. I have other things that I will do with faculty during that period to continue to gather information about their practices, their needs and student needs. And we’ll have a focus on faculty engagement throughout the remainder of this process. We have four dates for input from faculty and students in this initial period, the afternoons of Feb. 7 and 8 and the afternoons of Feb. 21 and 22.

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Those two visits will be different in content. The first ones will be more preliminary. At the second ones, the architects will come back with some high-level concepts to present and there will be something to respond to.

It’s important to stress that that’s not the end of the story. They won’t be done with their design work and we won’t be done programming the space or making decisions about collections when those documents go off to the board. We still have a fair amount of time to continue to figure out what to do, especially inside the building.

Q. How long do you think the building will be closed?

A. Well, I don’t think the building will technically be closed at any point. But I think it will be under construction for about five years.

If it goes well, it will begin in earnest in probably late 2019, early 2020, with demolition and then new construction on that spot. And then moving people and services into the new part of the building. Then demo-ing and renovating the rest of the building, either in one phase or in two. The goal is to keep some service point open and some staff in the building during the whole process. Lots of libraries have done that. Almost nobody is building new libraries from scratch. Everybody’s renovating. There’s a lot of information about that, and we have sought out people who we think have pertinent experience.

Q. In addition to the renovation website, how else are you communicating about the project?

A. We have a group, internal to the library, that’s been meeting regularly to manage our communications around this project. And then Judy Thomas – she’s been interim director of our Public Services Unit – she’s going to move to a focus on engaging faculty around the renovation with opportunities for teaching and research that arise from the renovation itself. Judy will be a kind of an ombudsman for input from faculty, so anybody can get in touch with her.

Anybody can get in touch with me. I’m happy to have that contact directly. I’d be happy if one of the byproducts of this process was greater engagement with the faculty around teaching and research, and around collections.

The University Library Committee will be an important part of this. I would encourage people to figure out who represents you on that committee, if you’re an interested faculty member. It’s a committee that’s appointed by the provost and is advisory to me. When I got here, it was mostly humanities and social sciences membership. I have expanded it to include the professional schools and to include the sciences and the health sciences. That group needs to be broader than just the Alderman constituency. I will add some people who aren’t permanent members to that committee; I’m particularly interested in getting graduate and undergraduate student representation.

We’re all in this together.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications