The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Library Architecture and Construction

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Library Architecture and Construction
Edition of 1920. See also Library on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

LIBRARY ARCHITECTURE AND CONSTRUCTION. The problems of library construction have been considered so often during the last few decades that the erection of a faulty library building would appear unnecessary, yet, judging from complaints made by librarians from time to time, some of the buildings erected have failed to respond to all of the demands made upon them. In general this condition appears to have resulted from one or more of the following causes: (1) An effort to erect a monumental building, (2) to conform it to a type of architecture unsuited to library purposes, (3) the appointment, often by competition, of an architect unschooled in the requirements of a library, (4) failure to consult with the librarian or with library experts. Much advancement has undoubtedly been made toward co-operation between architect and librarian, and many good designers have made library buildings their specialty, nevertheless it seems that the ideal type of library is not yet realized — the type so adapted to its purpose that it would be immediately recognized as such, as is the case with school buildings at the present time. This does not mean that library constructions should conform rigidly to a fixed standard of appearance and arrangement, but it does mean that the exterior should express as nearly as possible the purpose and functions of the interior. The body should properly and adequately house the spirit. The modern library building is the product of many years of experimentation and of fruitless efforts to adapt old types to new conditions. This applies with especial force to the one known as the alcove type, which was inherited from the mediæval cloister libraries. This still has many advantages for small libraries and for special collections, but when its principle is applied to large libraries, as was the case with the old Boston Public Library and the Astor, its defects more than outweighed its advantages. Hence as early as 1882 we find the American Library Association protesting against the construction of more buildings according to this plan. To-day the constructional requirements of a library building are comprehended to such an extent that library planning has become a science determined by definite laws. (Tilton, “Scientific Library Planning,” Library Journal, September 1912). It seems strange, therefore, that library buildings are still being erected that fail to respond to the legitimate demands made upon them.

The fundamental problems of a library are: (1) Accessibility; (2) economical storage of books, and (3) their rapid distribution. With regard to these elements, the well-known designer of libraries, Mr. Cass Gilbert, has this to say: “The first principle of library location and library planning should be accessibility. The whole efficiency of a public library depends upon its being accessible to the public in point of location, and being accessible in all of its parts to the working force and to the public parts by the people who are using it. I should like if practicable to have the main rooms of a library on the ground floor so that the public would not have to climb stairways to get to the delivery hall, yet in practice it appears to have been impossible to solve the problem in that way except in small libraries for reasons of space or economy of construction. In planning library buildings I have considered that the direct access of the public to the point of distribution of books is of prime importance and that this point of distribution should be as close as possible to the place where the books are stored. This results then in the entrance leading direct to the delivery hall, the delivery hall being in close connection with the stack room. The open shelf room should also be near to the delivery hall. Special collections may be placed at more remote locations, but those books which are constantly used by the public should be accessible. A type of plan which is suitable for a large city library is obviously not suitable for a small village library. A college or university library, a special research library, or a law library is essentially different from a city library so it is impossible to lay down any standardized plan.” In small libraries these questions are not so urgent. Indeed, for such wall cases, alcoves or small stacks all prove equally serviceable, but when the collections attain to 50,000 volumes or more the question of storage and administration becomes acute.


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Library of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis.


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Library of the University of Virginia


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Carnegie Library, Atlanta, Ga.


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Minnesota Historical Society


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Louisville Free Public Library


Three elements enter into the construction of any building: (1) Fitness; (2) permanence; (3) beauty. In library construction that is the order of their relative importance. The question of fitness is essentially the concern of the librarian. Here he should be supreme, for unless the architect has a correct knowledge of the problems of library administration he is not competent to decide questions of arrangement, etc., that so intimately affect the operations of the library when it is completed. The architect does not have to work in the building after completion, but the librarian does. This does not, of course, mean that the librarian shall meddle with purely constructional details but it does mean that either he or the trustees should determine the policy or program of construction; the size of the building, its cost, materials, arrangement of rooms, etc., etc. The librarian and the architect should work together, and in order to do so most successfully the sphere of each should be so delimited that no possibility of misunderstanding can arise. In order to attain this happy result, the librarian or building committee should prepare a statement setting forth the characteristics of the proposed building so clearly and fully that the architect can have no excuse for presenting a plan at variance with the proposals. This, in effect, will constitute an order on the architect and its nature will be determined by data possessed only by the librarian or building committee; i.e., the amount of appropriation, the nature and purpose of the library, the site, etc. The question of permanency is next in order of importance and involves not only the type of material to be used, such as stone, terra-cotta, brick, concrete, etc., but also the problem of providing for future expansion. Failure in the latter respect has been the cause of more distress to librarians than anything else. Apparently a library does not grow by arithmetical progression, but by geometrical, and as soon as an adequate home is constructed it attracts material from undreamed-of sources and in a steadily increasing volume. Hence any estimates of future development are generally much below the mark. A notable example of this was the case of the Library of Congress building. When planned, it was anticipated that it would accommodate the additions for several decades. This proved so mistaken that a new stack providing for a million volumes was under construction some 10 years after the building was first occupied. It is clear, therefore, that the growth of a library cannot be foreseen with any great accuracy. That it will be greater than any apparently liberal estimate may be taken for granted. Building for the future, therefore, does not mean a structure vastly larger than the needs of the present and immediate future, but it does mean that no building shall be erected that cannot be enlarged without injury to its design or without needless expenditures for demolitions and modifications. In short the additions should be considered in the original plans. With this in view, it is evident that a library building should not have ornamental façades on all sides, expensive to construct, and a complete loss if extensions are made. The question of material should be determined by the appropriation, by local conditions, etc. It is needless to say that it should be as nearly fireproof as possible. So-called absolute fireproof construction costs one-third more than a relative fireproof construction and ordinarily the latter will present a sufficient factor of safety. Stone, of course, is favored for the greater library buildings, but is the most expensive type of material. Excellent effects have been attained with much saving by the use of terra-cotta, brick and concrete. Frame construction, on account of its great inflammability, is not desirable, yet it would be better for a community to construct such a building rather than none at all. At least, it will be a nucleus for something better. The element of beauty, as far as it concerns a library, is essentially a by-product. Failure to recognize this point has been the prime cause of unfit library buildings. The designers of the public schools have learned this lesson and now library architects should recognize it universally and thereby avoid experiments and sad mistakes. It is difficult to fix the responsibility for the common error that a library should be something ornate and monumental. Sometimes it is due to the desire of the building committee to supply an architectural wonder to the community; again it may be that the librarian either favors or fails to oppose with sufficient energy an ornate structure. Generally, however, it would appear that the chief sinner is the architect who has seized upon an opportunity to express himself in the grand style. Another fruitful cause of unfit buildings is the predilection of architects for certain styles of architecture. Thus, for instance, the follower of classic traditions will build nothing but Greek temples, although the Greek temple is undoubtedly the very worst thing wherein to house a collection of books; a lover of the Gothic will construct lofty apartments, difficult to heat and expensive to build, ignoring, more or less, the most important element of floor space. The craze for libraries built after the Romanesque pattern, which sprang up owing to the genius of Richardson, certainly resulted in an advance in library construction, but their thick walls and deficient fenestration give them a tomb-like quality thoroughly depressing to the average reader.

To sum up, the æsthetic requirements of a library are satisfied by a construction marked by taste, dignity and repose, with no excess of decoration and ornamentation. In fact, warmth, homelikeness and restfulness are the characteristics that good psychology would recommend for a building dedicated to the conservation and distribution of knowledge. Should these principles be adhered to there can be no doubt that a purely library type of architecture will develop, if it has not already done so. Like the modern skyscraper, the library will find a type of construction all its own, sufficiently lovely and none-the-less a library. To gain this end, only one thing is necessary: to plan libraries from within, for all beautiful buildings became such because first of all they were fit. From the viewpoint of interior efficiency the following are the minimum requirements: (1) Sufficient floor space; (2) compactness; (3) light; (4) heat and ventilation; (5) storage. 1. Floor space. The amount of floor space assigned to the various departments will necessarily depend upon the nature of the library, but taking the public library as the norm, the assignment of floor space would average as follows: Reading-room, delivery-room, etc., 50 per cent; administration, 20 per cent; lecture hall, 10 per cent; stack, 20 per cent. There will of course be variations, particularly with regard to the stacks, which of course expand more rapidly and easily than the other groups. 2. Compactness. This is closely related to the preceding requirement, and means that the library be planned for economical administration. What is known in military science as “interior lines of communication” should be adhered to, so that the various processes in handling the book will link up without loss of space or time. Every step that is wasted and every needless operation caused by constructional exigencies stamp the building as faulty to that degree. All portions of the building from the basement to the attic should be available, and waste spaces formed by unnecessary passages and stairways should be avoided. 3. Light. The eye is the organ used almost exclusively in a library, hence the illumination should be abundant in quantity and diffused in quality. Therefore any form of construction that decreases light, such as overhanging porticoes, massive walls or dark tones in decoration, are distinctly bad. Direct sunlight and glares are bad, but otherwise there is little danger of too much light. This applies equally to artificial lighting, which should be supplied by electricity where available. Indirect systems of illumination are considered preferable, but they are not economical, and certainly are not recommended for stacks and situations requiring concentration of light. 4. Heat and Ventilation. Mental work is most efficiently performed where the temperature is neither too warm nor too cool, 68° to 70° Fahrenheit, and where there is an abundance of fresh air, without drafts. In general the direct-indirect method of heating appears to be the most satisfactory, for by means of it not only is the building heated but it is also supplied with fresh air. Furthermore the space-wasting and unsightly radiators are avoided, air-ducts in convenient positions in the walls or at positions being substituted. There should, of course, be ventilating exits for impure air and, in addition, some libraries use forced or artificial ventilation. Such a system has its advantages, but it is expensive to install and to maintain, and in certain cases has not been wholly a success. It might, however, be used to advantage in the reading-rooms and other assembly halls. The nature of the collections and the uses to which they are put will necessarily have a determining effect upon the type of building demanded. Thus, for instance, a special or associational library will require different arrangements from a public library, and the public library from a university library. For a technical collection, a small reference library or university seminar collection, the alcove system has very decided advantages, which disappear, however, as soon as the collection exceeds, say, the 50,000-mark. These points apply, though with less force, to theological, medical and law libraries. The latter, in particular, requires special treatment, for a law library is a reference library in the strictest sense, not partially but as a whole. The entire collection, sometimes very extensive, should be immediately accessible. In many cases, such as that of the Social Law Library, Boston, the problem has been solved by placing the stacks down one side of a long apartment, the other side of the room being arranged for readers, who have direct access to the books on the shelves. A similar arrangement would be satisfactory for the larger medical, technical and scientific libraries. Theological, historical and document collections, partaking more of the characteristics of general libraries, could make use of stack system. General reference libraries are subject to the conditions determining any library building, yet there are certain differences that require special attention. The university library is perhaps the best type of this class. This has some very special problems that influence the construction of the building. One of these is the necessity for making it conform with the other buildings in the academic group, for more and more the universities are planning all new buildings according to predetermined architectural styles. The necessity for conformity on the part of the library could conceivably result in an unsatisfactory building, unless great care were taken in its design. Another serious problem of the university library is the necessity for providing for the special collections demanded by the different academic departments. In some institutions the university library is little more than a collection of separate special libraries, the general library containing only a minority of the total collections. However, the difficulties of administration and oversight, the danger of losses and changes of position, more than offset the advantages of this system and has led to its general abandonment. A compromise has been adopted either in the nature of a rigid restriction of the books in a department's collection to its particular subject, or by providing seminar or special rooms for the various departments in the central library, where they can be administered by the staff. In some cases there is direct access to the stacks and the main body of the literature from the seminary room. This system, in the main, follows the principles advocated by Dr. Poole and followed out by him in the Newberry Library. Practically all of the university libraries have adopted it, notably Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Chicago, Illinois, Michigan and California. In most cases provision is made for research work in the stacks, table alcoves being installed for the use of professors and advanced students. This policy of course requires the construction of wider aisles along the stack ranges. In general no distinction is made in the reading and reference rooms between the serious student and the casual reader or those who make use of these rooms as study halls between classes. The last group presents a very serious problem in large university libraries and in certain buildings an effort is made to solve it by providing study halls. The constructional problems of a large public library are infinite, but as such a library, owing to its size and the variety of its interests, tends to split up into very distinct departments, these problems can best be solved by considering each department as a unit. By determining its particular needs first, and then defining its relations to other departments and co-ordinating the whole, a satisfactory basis for a plan could be attained. With regard to the site a main public library should be situated as near to the centre of population as possible without establishing it on a traffic artery, with the accompanying inconveniences of noise, dust, etc. The building should be of durable material, preferably stone or brick; and as nearly fireproof as possible. As great public libraries are both reference and circulating libraries the plans should provide for a separation of these activities. This problem has been most admirably solved in the plans of the New York Public Library. It appears to be traditional that a public library should possess a large auditorium. This is more or less of a luxury and as it is only occasionally used it would seem wiser to hire a hall when lectures are offered by the library, rather than carry so much unused space. The suggestions already presented regarding light, ventilation and provision for expansion apply with particular force to the public library. In the larger cities the central library cannot keep in touch with the whole community. For this reason branch library systems have been established. Special buildings have been erected or rooms acquired. The constructional problems of these, however, are those of the small library, the only differences being extreme compactness permitting a small administrative force, absence of cataloguing rooms, etc.; small stacks, preferably open to the public; and provisions for the reception and return of books forwarded by the parent library. The stack question is, of course, a most vital one in library planning, yet it is one that has been fairly well answered by American constructive genius. The modern stack to be found in the libraries of our country constitute a most adequate adaptation of construction to the demands of the situation. There is nothing to compare with it in foreign countries. One step is yet to be taken, which is for the architect to frankly accept the stack and, instead of hiding it away behind screens of walls, often unnecessary, to concern himself with its architectural possibilities. The admirable results obtained in the Denver Public Library and in some smaller library buildings point the way to a new and most interesting field of development in library construction.

Bibliography. — Burgoyne, ‘Library Construction’ (The Library Series, II, London 1905); Champneys, ‘Public Libraries; a Treatise on Their Design, Construction and Fitting’ (London 1907); Koch, ‘A Book of Carnegie Libraries’ (New York 1917); Snead and Company, ‘Library Planning, Bookstacks and Shelving’ (Jersey City 1915); Soule, ‘How to Plan a Library Building’ (Boston 1912); id., ‘Points of Agreement among Librarians as to Library Architecture’ (Brochure Series, architectural illustrations, 1897).

Edwin Wiley,
Librarian, United States Naval War College.


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Harvard College Library, Harvard University


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General Reading Room, Widener Memorial Library, Harvard University


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Public Library of the City of Denver, Denver, Col.


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Library of the University of California