By Susie Allen, AB’09
Photo by Jason Smith

[L]ibrarians must plan for the needs of those future generations.”
—Judith Nadler
Director, University Library

Judith Nadler knew she was bucking a trend.

In 2006, as the director of the University Library made the case to the Board of Trustees for a new library, universities across the country were moving their collections to off-site storage. The same week she made her presentation, five universities offered up their collections to Google Books for digitization, raising questions about the future of printed books.

“Did the news give me pause? Yes. Was I energized? Absolutely yes,” Nadler says.

The needs of researchers called for an approach that would embrace the growing digital trend, while keeping the University’s invaluable physical holdings in the heart of campus. The result is the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, opening May 16, which is not quite like any major research library that has come before.

Scholarly imperatives dictated the library’s innovative approach to storage, which assures faculty, students, and staff the widest possible access to digital and print resources. Although the future of research looks far different than it did a generation ago, both formats continue to be essential for many scholars, says Adrian Johns, who studies the history of the book.

“We’re in a hybrid culture at the moment,” says Johns, professor in history and chair of the Committee on the Conceptual & Historical Studies of Sciences. “Part of the skill of being a good reader is knowing how to juxtapose these two media effectively.”

To support the hybrid culture, Mansueto’s design includes a high-density underground storage space for up to 3.5 million volume-equivalents. Users will be able to access any holding within minutes of finding it online — an important advantage over off-site storage, Nadler believes.

“We believe that having materials close by enhances their use, and that storing them remotely will do the opposite,” she says. “By not providing ready access to materials, we de facto reduce their value, and we impact research in ways we wouldn’t want.”

The library’s elegant design and prime location on campus offer “a bold statement of importance, of centrality,” Nadler says. The project has come to fruition thanks to the vision of Joe and Rika Mansueto, both UChicago alumni, who view libraries as a central part of academic life. University leaders named the library for the Mansuetos in recognition of their $25 million donation to support library research.

Architect Helmut Jahn designed the facility with a striking elliptical dome to enclose the above-ground facilities. In addition to a light-filled reading room for library users, Mansueto includes cutting-edge facilities for research, digitization of printed materials, and preservation of library holdings.

Also this month, the new Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery opened on May 9 with an exhibition of rare materials related to the practice of architecture. In coming weeks, the library will celebrate the opening of both spaces with tours for graduating students and a reception for alumni.

The Mansueto Library will be formally dedicated on Oct. 11, 2011, once the initial transportation of materials into the new library is complete.

The Best of Both Worlds

In spite of the abundance of resources online, most researchers have not turned away from printed works. Indeed, when sociologist Andrew Abbott began a study of library use at UChicago, he discovered a strong correlation between the use of print and digital resources. “The model that people have in their minds is that the world is made up of conservatives who don’t use electronic stuff and radicals who do, but that’s not true at all,” says Abbott, the Gustavus F. & Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology and the College. “The key thing to understand is that good researchers use more of both.”

In Mansueto, library leaders found the best of both worlds. The high-density storage system will primarily house materials like serials, periodicals, and other materials that are already online, as well as rare and fragile materials that should not be kept on open shelves.

Mansueto’s new facilities also will help support the library’s partnership with the Google Books mass digitization project. In the conservation facilities, materials will be cleaned and prepared to be sent to Google Books for scanning. An expanded, state-of-the-art digitization lab will allow the library to digitize its rare materials on site and make them available to users online.

But if researchers need to take a closer look at the original artifact, it will be available virtually immediately. Mansueto can house its massive collection in one-seventh the space of open stacks, allowing for continued collection growth.”

It’s an arrangement that faculty members and students applaud.

Books in languages other than English and books published outside the United States—which make up about 50 percent of the Library’s holdings—are slow to be digitized. Furthermore, over 80 percent of materials currently held by research libraries are not yet in the public domain. As a result, less than 20 percent of research libraries’ holdings can be offered in full in digital form.

“The practical impact on productivity, to call it that, is huge,” Johns says. “All of the off-site storage places across the world now may have holdings that are technically as large as ours, but imagine what happens. You order something up, it takes two days to arrive, it turns out it’s not quite the right thing, so you have to reorder, and that’s another two days. That could be for one footnote.”

Digitized texts are essential, researchers say, but for many important tasks they cannot yet replace print materials.

Digitization also misses crucial contextual information about a text, such as its paper quality, binding, or ink, says Johns. He pulls out a hefty copy of Foxe’s Book of Martrys, a popular religious text from the 16th century, and a tiny, leather-bound book of psalms, no bigger than the palm of his hand.

“In digitized form, these two end up the same size,” he explains. “These are very different objects. But without the originals, it’s hard to get a sense of what [the differences are].”

Sometimes there is simply no replacement for the original print artifact, says graduate student Anthony Todd, a historian who relies heavily on paper copies of historical newspapers for his dissertation research. “From a professional standpoint, in my discipline, it’s pretty easy to say we need this,” he says.

“This need for original artifacts will be true for future generations as much as it is for current generations,” says Nadler. “And librarians must plan for the needs of those future generations.”

A Distinctive Library for a Distinctive Institution

For Nadler, Jahn’s elegant melding of form and function spoke to the University’s aspirations for the new library. “What appeals to me is its transparency, its openness, its wide spaces,” she says. “A place of beauty, of serenity, of openness, of light, is very much conducive to how research and teaching and study is being done today.”

“Mansueto promises to be both interesting to see, and really pleasant,” agrees Todd. “It’s going to be a lovely resource.”

It is a distinctive building for a distinctive institution, says Johns.

“This is a place that’s very research-centered, even at the undergraduate level,” he says. “You think of them as researchers in progress. At the undergraduate level, I set topics that involve looking at primary sources, and…not just synthesizing existing secondary opinions.”

That immersive scholarly environment is another reason why Mansueto fits the University’s culture, Johns says.

“It’s not just that this decision is unusual at U. of C.,” he says, “it’s also that a place like U. of C. is not that typical.”

Originally published on May 20, 2011.