Mansueto Library emerges as a Chicago icon
By Susie Allen, AB'09
Photo by Tom Rossiter
It is a library built in a time when many libraries felt that they were becoming obsolete, that they were not important. Our faculty and our administration has shown that this is not so.”
On a sunny morning in early September, the Mansueto Library was filled with students buried in books and peering intently at their laptop screens. They barely noticed the two magazine photographers, who scouted the light-filled reading room in search of the best angle. Below ground, student employees busily loaded book after book into the library’s automated storage and retrieval system.
In the five months since it opened to patrons, the library has rapidly emerged as a Chicago icon — one that is an integral part of campus life at UChicago and a workhorse of the University’s library system. Its striking design and scholarly mission have garnered worldwide interest from architecture publications, technology websites, and writers interested in the future of libraries.
All the while, the library’s massive book-loading project went on under patrons’ feet, at an astounding rate of 20,000 volumes a day on average.
The Mansueto Library stands as a bold statement of the continued centrality of libraries for modern culture, says Judith Nadler, Library Director and University Librarian. Yet she knows the work has just begun. “It is imperative that we take full advantage of Mansueto’s enormous potential to enable scholarship and teaching at the University of Chicago,” she says.
Now, with almost a million volumes loaded into Mansueto, the University community will celebrate the beginning of the library’s next stage. At 4 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, the library will be dedicated in a ceremony at the Harper Memorial Library Commons. The event will feature a keynote address by Princeton professor Anthony Grafton, AB’71, AM’72, PhD’75, and the world premiere of “double helix,” a new piece by Augusta Read Thomas, the University Professor of Composition.
The fall event comes just weeks after the completion of the ambitious book loading effort. It was up to a small army of students to load materials into bins and onto specially designed shelf rack units in the automated system, a task they accomplished even as students continued to use the grand reading room as a study area.
Throughout the summer, wooden carts full of books rumbled down the passageway between the Regenstein and Mansueto libraries, then made their way into the library’s cavernous basement. There, they were met by the student workers, who had been hired to “[feed] this giant robot,” as second-year Victoria Lee told the Chronicle of Higher Education in July.
The Mansueto Library has the capacity to hold the equivalent of 3.5 million volumes in its innovative underground storage system. This summer, Library staff identified nearly a million books that fit the strict criteria for inclusion in Mansueto — materials that do not benefit from open-shelf browsing or are too rare or fragile to be kept on open shelves, such as serials, periodicals, dissertations, and special collections. These volumes would be the first to go into the new library.
Over the course of the summer, the students developed an affectionate relationship with the library’s five cranes, which they nicknamed John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Yoko. On Friday, Sept. 16 at 4:52 p.m., the last book of the initial load was placed into Mansueto: Documents of the New Jersey Legislature (1881).
Even students who haven’t gotten up close and personal with Mansueto have developed an affinity for it. Within weeks of opening, students had already given it playful nicknames, including the “Reg Egg” and “Suety.”
Second-year Julia Chang remembers thinking the library was striking when she first walked in, and recalls Mansueto becoming the trendy, new study spot on campus. “Everybody would study there; it was as hard to get a seat in ‘Suety’ as it is to get one in Steve Levitt’s class.” Chang says “it was a worthwhile investment.”
“I think it’s a lot easier to study in there,” says third-year Stephanie Joseph.
“Time will just fly. You’ll think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how much time just went by.’”
“I like that’s it really open, and I like a lot of light,” agrees third-year Jade Avery. “It’s really enjoyable—it actually makes studying kind of fun.”
When Mansueto opened in May, it wasn’t just students who flocked to the dome. Publications from Wired to Inside Higher Ed saw Mansueto’s innovative use of on-site, high-density storage as a game-changer. “It might just be the library of the future,” Angela Watercutter wrote in Wired.
Other publications focused on Helmut Jahn’s distinctive design. Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune described the library as a “convention-busting marvel” and named it among the year’s best architecture projects in the Midwest.
“It’s a great indoor room, a space which reminds us, as the University’s neo-Gothic Quadrangles do, that learning is something we pursue together — preferably in quarters as luminous and inspiring as this one,” Kamin wrote of the reading room.
The library also attracted global interest via social media. In addition to thousands of Mansueto-related posts on Twitter and Facebook, a University-produced video on the automated system has received more than 175,000 views on YouTube.
Nadler has been “greatly enchanted” by the reaction to the new building. She believes it was both the creative design and the very idea of a new library the caught the world’s attention.
“It is a library built in a time when many libraries felt that they were becoming obsolete, that they were not important. Our faculty and our administration has shown that this is not so, and has made this bold decision to build a library here.”
“In an environment where we so honor the past,” she says proudly, “we built something that is not traditional.”
Originally published on October 11, 2011.