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“Beautiful and Inspiring”

Exterior of Firestone Library. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications, Princeton University)

A Ten-Year Renovation Transforms Princeton’s Firestone Library

By Donald H. Sanborn III

“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different languages,” Albert Einstein is quoted as saying. “The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend but only dimly suspects.”

A 1941 photo of Einstein in his study is on display in the new Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery of Princeton University’s Firestone Library, which is across from the University Chapel. The University has completed its ten-year renovation of Firestone, which was “focused on creating a building that is well-suited to support modern library services and contemporary approaches to scholarship, while also providing inspiring, flexible study and work spaces,” the University states in a press release.

The Milberg Gallery is one of two rooms that are open to the general public. The other is the Cotsen Children’s Library, which, during the renovation “underwent system upgrades while maintaining its popular and imaginative décor,” says the University.

“The speed and scale of change facing academic libraries in recent years has been unprecedented,” University Librarian Anne Jarvis notes in Town Topics, a sister publication of Princeton Magazine. “We are moving beyond the concept of a library as a finite place with traditional collections – to that of a library as a partner in research, teaching, and learning. Having state-of-the-art facilities is essential to providing expert guidance, discoverability, and access to the world’s rapidly evolving knowledge resources.”

Firestone also is home to Rare Books and Special Collections; the Scheide Library, whose holdings include a Gutenberg Bible, medieval manuscripts, and music manuscripts of Bach and Beethoven; and the Center for Digital Humanities – which, according to its website, “is an interdisciplinary research center and academic unit” that embraces an “inclusive understanding…that investigates the myriad ways digital methods and technologies are opening new avenues for research into the human experience, past and present.”


The Library History page of the website notes that the books used by the original students of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton University was known until 1896, came from the personal collections of the school’s presidents, Aaron Burr Sr. and Jonathan Dickinson. In 1750 Governor Belcher donated 474 books, making the library the sixth largest in the colonies. It originally was housed in a room on the second floor of Nassau Hall, along with the Continental Congress. The Revolutionary War did not destroy the library, but a fire in Nassau Hall did, in 1802. Through the help of benefactors, the library’s collections were rebuilt.

However, the collection was deemed inadequate by President James McCosh, who came to Princeton in 1868. He complained to the trustees that the library was “insufficiently supplied with books, and open only once a week – for one hour.” President McCosh saw that the library was open every day except Sunday, and acquired a building for the express purpose of housing the Chancellor Green Library, which opened next to Nassau Hall in 1875. Chancellor Green was filled to capacity by 1897, so Pyne Library was added. Between them, the two libraries had acquired over a million volumes by the late 1940s, and again a new building was needed.

The Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library opened in 1948, making it the first large American university library built after World War II. It is named for Harvey S. Firestone (1868-1938), the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, one of the first global manufacturers of automobile tires.

By 1971 the library’s capacity again was exceeded, so two lower floors were added; further expansion took place in 1988. A release about the just-completed renovation asserts that Firestone “is one of the largest open-stack libraries in existence.”


Firestone Library Reading Room. (Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University Library)

“We are fortunate that the library was conceived as an open and flexible laboratory for the humanities,” University Architect Ronald J. McCoy, Jr. says in a Princeton Magazine story published early in the renovation process. “In this regard we have been focused on the transformation of the building’s infrastructure, creating state-of the-art systems for energy, life-safety, and the security of the collection.” The University notes, “while the classic collegiate Gothic exterior of Firestone remains, the library’s recent renovation vastly changed the 430,000-square-foot interior.”

The goal of the renovation was to “transform Firestone Library into an innovative 21st-century library,” states Barbara Valenza, the library’s communications director. “The renovation of Firestone aimed to redefine, rethink, and revitalize this hub of campus life. The project focused on creating a building that is well-suited to support modern library services and contemporary approaches to scholarship, while also providing inspiring flexible study and work spaces. The renovation also incorporated a number of sustainable features, greatly improving the energy-efficiency of the building.”

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“Stepping inside Firestone Library today, visitors and patrons are now greeted with natural light cascading into open spaces where glass walls reflect students studying in small groups, tucked away in favorite hideaway spots, or sprawled on comfortable couches,” says Valenza. “Multiple floors above and below offer many more unexpected and unique spaces for research, studying, and group work – all of which have been thoughtfully designed to accommodate the needs of today’s scholars.”

The new facilities include “technologically equipped classrooms with e-learning capabilities, which offer places for faculty to teach using collections, and allow library specialists to hold workshops on topics from information literacy to research data management,” Valenza says. There also is a “digital imaging studio that enables expanded digitization of book and other library materials, making it possible for people around the world to access library materials online for free,” and “a conservation lab that supports the stewardship of collections, carefully maintaining and preserving materials for today’s scholars and future generations.”

“One of the greatest challenges during the renovation was undergoing construction while patrons continued to use the library,” says Jeffrey Rowlands, director of library finance and administration. “As PUL’s main library of nine campus locations, keeping Firestone open during the renovation was important, to provide continuous research facilities to our patrons. It required extensive detailed planning, and the ability to be flexible.”

Rowlands says, “one of the most rewarding parts of the renovation was Princeton’s commitment to making Firestone more energy efficient.” Valenza adds, “Throughout the building, new systems include lighting sensors for dimming lights; thermally-insulated windows with UV control glazing; chilled beam technology for energy-efficient heating and cooling; a green roof; LED light fixtures, and more.” Valenza says that these features ensure that the library’s “energy use has been significantly reduced.”

The Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery

The Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery is presenting its inaugural exhibition, “Welcome Additions: Selected Acquisitions 2012-18.” According to its website, the gallery will highlight the library’s “world-renowned collections while also drawing upon complementary collections from campus partners such as the Princeton University Art Museum.” Jarvis says, “With the opening of the…gallery in Firestone Library, we are able to share materials from our collections with a wider audience.”

“Welcome Additions” is described as a retrospective of recent additions to PUL’s special collections within the Cotsen Children’s Library, East Asian Library, Graphic Arts, Manuscripts, Marquand Library of Art and Archaeology, Numismatics, Public Policy Papers, Rare Books, Scheide Library, University Archives, and Western Americana. Eric White, the curator of rare books, remarks that the exhibit “plays on the notion that our recent acquisitions may reflect either long-awaited opportunities to enhance existing collections, or unexpected ways of moving beyond traditional collecting interests.”

A page from the Gutenberg Bible. (Photo by Roel Muñoz, Princeton University Library)

In addition to the photo of Einstein, visitors to the gallery also can see a Qur’an from China that dates to the 1600s; a score to J.S. Bach’s 1736 Zweyter Thell der Clavier Ubung; an early 20th-century toy theatre from Spain; covers of American Jewess magazine, dating to the 1890s; a draft of Bill Bradley’s Rhodes Scholarship essay, along with his professor’s advisory letter, from 1964-65; and a 1987 draft of Beloved by Toni Morrison. Also included among the exhibits is a photo of the First One Hundred Days campus protest of 2017, led by the Princeton Advocates for Justice.

The gallery is named to recognize the contributions of 1953 Princeton Alumnus Leonard L. Milberg and his wife, Ellen. A dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony took place Februrary 28. The gallery’s opening was attended by the Milbergs; their granddaughter Samantha Shapiro, a member of the Princeton class of 2021; Jarvis; and Fintan O’Toole, the Leonard L. Milberg ’53 visiting lecturer in Irish Letters.

Future exhibits will include “In principio: The Origins and Early Spread of European Printing,” which will feature the Gutenberg Bible, among 50 or 60 other items; “Piranesi on the Pgae,” a 300th anniversary celebration of graphic artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, which will include items on loan from the Vatican Library; and a tribute to 1950 alumnus Lloyd E. Cotsen.

Cotsen Children’s Library

Donations from Lloyd E. Cotsen have made possible a research collection of illustrated children’s books, manuscripts, original artwork, and educational toys from the 15th century to the present. Cotsen’s website notes that the library’s curatorial division hosts academic programs on aspects of the history of children’s books, and publishes their proceedings.

What visitors see upon entering Cotsen is Bookscape, a reading space created by James Bradberry, an architect whose specialty is institutional design. The space was built from Bradberry’s sketches by Judson Beaumont and his staff at Straight Line Designs, a custom furniture company based in Vancouver.

As patrons enter Bookscape they see a giant book with “Cotsen Children’s Library” on its spine, along with a rabbit and other topiary animals. Part of the floor has been painted to resemble a pond in which fish are swimming. Young readers (or those who are young at heart) can sit in a cozy mini-house area that has two dens, one of which has a “Hearth of Darkness” fireplace. Beyond the house is a two-story reading nook that resembles a bonsai tree. Those who have finished reading can gaze at a wishing well, or create their own show at a puppet theater.

The library also has a variety of programs. Young visitors under age 2 can build their vocabularies with Bookscape Babies; slightly older patrons, ages 3-5, can listen to a picture book and create a project to take home at Tiger Tales. If readers ages 6-8 join To Be Continued, the library will read a chapter book to them over several weeks. Cotsen Critix is a literary society for readers ages 9-12.

“A Beautiful and Inspiring Home”

Cotsen Children’s Library Bookscape entryway. (Photo by David Kelly Crow)

Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber says, “Firestone Library is undoubtedly one of the world’s great research libraries, but for me, and for many others on this campus, it is also a defining part of the Princeton experience. I have been personally involved with the renovation project since its planning stages, when I traveled with [former] University Librarian Karin Trainer and various faculty members to visit other recently renovated university libraries. On those trips I learned that libraries express the scholarly character of individual campuses. This is very true of Firestone.”

“Firestone has always been a powerful laboratory for the humanities and social sciences; it is now also a beautiful and inspiring home for scholars and the books they love,” Eisgruber adds. “I hope that alumni will take the opportunity to visit Firestone when they return to campus; they will find spaces that bring back memories of their time on campus, and evoke new appreciation for the wonders
of learning.”

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