Fast track: Faculty and students want in on Alderman renovation planning

Alderman Library will lose all its 2.5 million books during its $160 million renovation. The number of books that will come back worries some bibliophiles.

Staff photo Alderman Library will lose all its 2.5 million books during its $160 million renovation. The number of books that will come back worries some bibliophiles. Staff photo

UVA has long desired a makeover of its 1937 research library, and with General Assembly funding for the $160 million project likely in 2018, plans are surging ahead—leaving some faculty and students uneasy about whether Alderman’s 2.5 million book collection will make it back to the library once renovations are complete.

And while plans are not complete, Alderman’s low-ceilinged, rumored trysting-spot stacks will not be part of its new look.

“There’s no way to bring them up to code,” said university librarian John Unsworth at a December 13 meeting about the project. The vintage wiring and plumbing are safety hazards, he says, and the low ceilings make it impossible to install sprinklers.

“It’s not as though a library has never burned on this campus,” he said, referring to the great Rotunda fire of 1895.

As part of the preparation, the size of the Ivy Stacks has doubled, and most of Alderman’s collection will relocate there, with 750,000 tomes staying on Grounds in Clemons Library.

“I’m very interested in hearing from students and faculty,” said Unsworth about the selection criteria for keeping books in open stacks. “No research facility worth its name keeps all its books in open shelves.”

It’s that criteria—and earlier plans that touted more open space and chairs and fewer books—that concerned some at the December meeting.

One suggestion from an attendee was for administrators to proactively reach out to grad students—and not hold meetings such as this when they’re gone.

“What was striking were the professions of administrators that they wanted to be open,” says UVA English professor David Vander Meulen. But of the actual plans, he says, “So much of it remains uncertain in my mind.”

He’s concerned about the “fast and furious” timeline to get the project ready to go to the Board of Visitors in the spring, which put planning for July through December 2017, says Vander Meulen.

He notes that UVA commissioned a study from Brightspot, the company that wanted to remove the books from New York’s iconic public library on 42nd Street and ship them to New Jersey—until the outcry of activists and authors like Salman Rushdie halted the process.

“I wasn’t thrilled with that part of our process,” said Unsworth of the Brightspot study at the meeting. “We’re not working with them now.”

To do the renovation, the university has chosen HBRA Architects, which remodeled Yale’s libraries. Its architects will be at UVA January 24 and February 7 to gather input from the community.

“We need to be a big part of that input!” writes UVA alum and visiting scholar John Bugbee in an email to rally “librarophiles.”

Vander Meulen is dubious about how much input the renovation will get from those not on the library committee. “It sounds like we have two days when the architects are here,” he says.

UVA English professor Elizabeth Fowler advised attendees how to articulate to the architects what the books at Alderman mean to faculty and students. “They want vision and meaning,” she said.

Unsworth has said Alderman could end up holding more books than it currently houses.

The collection will move in 2019 and construction will begin in 2020, according to the timeline, providing “several years of disruption,” says Unsworth.

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