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Firestone Library’s Ten-Year-Long Renovation

web 1“In light of the library’s importance in teaching and research at Princeton, the University has committed to a comprehensive renovation of Firestone Library. The renovation is conceived as a long-term project with multiple phases that will take almost 10 years to finish, during which time the library will remain open and its collections available during normal hours of operation.” –

“renovation” – to make changes and repairs to (an old house, building, room, etc.) so that it is back in good condition.

By Ellen Gilbert

Situated at the corner of Nassau Street and Washington Road, Princeton University’s Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library is often referred to as the University’s “main library.” University Librarian Karin Trainer diplomatically refers to it as “the mother ship.” “A key priority” of the renovation, says James P. Wallace, the Campus Architect who is charged with overseeing the project, “is reinforcing Firestone’s central role on campus, and increasing scholarly use of the building and collections.”

The library system dates back to the university’s founding in 1746. When it opened in 1948, Firestone (named in honor of Firestone Rubber and Tire Company founder Harvey S. Firestone) was the first large American university library constructed after World War II. Roughly 1.5 million volumes were moved during the summer of 1948 from Pyne and Chancellor Green Halls, which until then had served as the University’s main library.

When it opened, then-University Librarian Julian P. Boyd noted that “it is a building dedicated to the dignity and value of knowledge and of wisdom. It exists for these purposes alone. If the architectural ornaments are beautiful or if the technical paraphernalia of librarianship intrude themselves upon you, remember that they are present incidentally or through necessity.”

There is very little that is incidental about the current Firestone renovation. “We were fortunate that the library was conceived as an open and flexible laboratory for the humanities,” observes University Architect Ronald J. McCoy, Jr. “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.”

Campus Architect James P. Wallace, who oversees the project, talks about the nitty-gritty. “As an interior renovation project, Firestone is rich with challenges posed by existing conditions. Routing all-new systems through its structural shell requires a lot of coordination and flexibility. There’s a lot of focus on project logistics, and maintaining satisfactory conditions for ongoing occupancy of key areas adjacent to active construction.”

These challenges are typically handled by real estate developers such as Lincoln Frost, who are hired as consultants to provide their perspectives and advice on the project. They are frequently involved in the construction and renovation of homes, offices, and sites similar to firestone library.

Nevertheless, considerable attention was paid to prerenovation patterns of use. In response to the need for more storage space, lockers-at least one for every student-abound, and new long wooden reading tables are situated in sunlight-filled spaces. Additionally, other renovations have also been considered around the library, including wall finishes, new flooring installations (perhaps by a flooring company alpharetta, or elsewhere), and light fixture replacements, along with exterior restoration.

Some things are gone and probably won’t be missed; there are no more left-and-right switches for patrons to turn on and off as they navigate the stacks, and hardly-used old wooden carrels are gone. Other routines remain: a number of “moveable” stacks that need to be cranked apart for access are being kept in response to space concerns. Microforms are, perhaps surprisingly, still not a thing of the past (although more and more of them are being digitized), and browsing is still among the library’s pleasures. Those guiding the renovation are sensitive to user responses as they occur: in one instance a temporary site for shelving current periodicals proved to be user-friendly and so they decided to keep it. Online “renovation updates” and prominent signs in the Firestone Library keep everyone apprised of the project’s progress.

The Princeton University library system now includes 11 specialized libraries spread across campus.* These school and departmental libraries “are absolutely essential,” Trainer notes. “It’s just not possible to put all the collections together,” and proximity to their respective constituents-faculty and students in various disciplines-is critical. Still, it’s interesting to note that there’s just one pot of money for them all, and every year each library must make the case for its share.


Trainer came to Princeton in 1996 after stints as associate university librarian at Yale University and director of technical and automated services at the New York University Libraries. She expected to stay, she says, for five years. She loved it so much that she has stayed for 20 – and counting. In addition to the distinction of being the first woman to hold the job at Princeton, she will surely be remembered as the librarian under whose watch Firestone is being massively renovated. While under discussion for some time, actual work did not begin until 2008. The project, which will cost the university an estimated $250 million, is scheduled for completion in 2018.

While the long-term, incremental nature of the renovation is intended to insure that uninterrupted services (circulation, inter-library loan, reference, etc.), the fact is that on any given day there are workmen drilling and hammering, and stacks of materials being relocated. Trainer admits to receiving “a few complaints,” while noting that people, for the most part, seem to think that it’s all worth waiting for. Summing it up recently, Library Assistant Carol Houghton simply said, “Sometimes it’s a pain in the neck, but it’s pretty exciting to see the finished parts.”

Infrastructure updates aside, most people still look to distinguished older libraries to provide a sense of majesty. John Palfry, author of BiblioTech (“Why Libraries Matter More than Ever in the Age of Google”)” recently suggested that “libraries could use a twenty-first-century Andrew Carnegie to invest in the digital equivalent of the Carnegie libraries of the analog era,” but seasoned library observers know better. When the New York Public Library’s main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue underwent a major renovation about 15 years ago, officials were anxious to point out the many new computers and improved wiring. It was, however, the “jaw-dropping” beauty of the bronze lamps, gold leaf, and newly cleaned, vibrant ceiling painting in the restored Reading Room that caught patrons’ and reviewers’ attention.

The same potential for awe is definitely a factor in the current renovation at Princeton. “Firestone has a unique character and contains some of the most beautiful rooms on campus,” says McCoy. “They needed to be ‘rediscovered’ in ways that could capture their original beauty. In the final phase of the work there will be dramatically new spaces, in particular a museum-quality public exhibition space for presenting material from the rare books and special collections. This space will fit comfortably within the character of the original building and it will inspire a entirely new appreciation for the collections.”

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Rendering courtesy of Frederick Fisher & Partners

The project’s architect of record, Carole Wedge of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott (SBRA), also talks about the need for both utility and beauty. “Firestone’s central vision for scholarship remains a constant in a setting that reinforces its strong sense of place.” Wedge is not new to the Princeton community; she helped with Marquand Library’s major face-lift (completed in 2003), and Shepley Bulfinch prides itself on finding design solutions that speak to scholarly concerns in the digital age. Current projects include, for example, the Boole Library renovation and expansion at University College, Cork, and the Batten Hall/”innovation lab” at Harvard Business School.

In addition to SBRA, Frederick Fisher and Partners (FFP), an architectural firm based in Santa Monica, California, was also brought in board to help recreate, in Fred Fisher’s words, “a state of the art research library that maintains its unique hybrid architectural character.”

“Firestone is the last of the Gothic Revival buildings at Princeton (with the exception of Whitman College)” Fisher notes. “While the exterior harmonized with the great Ralph Adams Cram-designed chapel next door, Firestone was an innovative modernist interior of flexible, loft-like spaces.” In divvying up responsibilities, Fisher says, “SBRA brought their deep experience with library design and ‘horsepower’ for this large project, while FFP brought a design sensibility.”

An art committee that includes the University Architect as well as representatives from the Art Museum and Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is responsible for placing relevant works of art (old and new) in the finished spaces. Numerous old portraits have been hung in several finished spaces (more women would be welcome, Trainer notes), and artifacts, like a large antique globe, are artfully positioned. To replace a badly damaged medieval tapestry, planners commissioned a new, Princeton-centric wall hanging, woven in Belgium by the artist John Nava. Using images and texts from the library’s special collections, Fisher says that Nava has created “an artwork with the ‘DNA’ of Firestone Library literally woven into it.” In a somewhat similar spirit, letter-patterned fabric called “Alphabet,” designed in 1952 by Alexander Girard, has been installed behind several new banquettes on other floors.

The Trustees’ Reading Room on the library’s first floor was used as a point of reference for a balcony constructed in the new third floor reading room, described by Fisher as “one of the most beautiful spaces on campus with its Gothic windows facing the Chapel.”

Pre-renovation remnants, like the old stone embedded in the level B staircase wall (“From Pembroke College Oxford founded 1624 The College of Doctor Johnson”) are reassuringly intact. An informal homage to the past is “Found in Firestone,” an exhibit case in the lobby that displays newly unearthed notes, magazines (not scholarly), and other forgotten effects of students who used the library years ago.

The potential for technological change over a ten-year span of time and the fact that Firestone adds about one-and-onehalf miles of new books every year would seem to demand a certain amount of flexibility and willingness to rethink original plans on everyone’s part. The notion of “long life/loose fit” informs FFP’s work, says Fisher. “We always look beyond the immediate functions of buildings to how those functions and users may change in time, as inevitably they will.” The effects of time are very much in evidence in Firestone’s brand new conservation lab, where six full-time staff treat worn and damaged materials from Rare Books and Special Collections and, to a lesser extent, some “everyday” materials, for which new online copies are often easy to locate.

Web 3Other considerations, McCoy and Trainer both note, include attention to users’ “wayfinding” patterns as they locate and use materials in the building, as well as the not insignificant differences in searching styles among various disciplines. Princeton recently acknowledged the growing trend toward interdisciplinary studies with a new combined library serving both the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Institute. A new space within Firestone has been set aside for Institute for Advanced Study members to be able to work without having to leave the building, and more digitized resources for researchers in the humanities are on the way.

The traditional centralized reference desk had gone by the wayside even before the renovation began. Professional staff now tend to be engaged in answering complex questions either online or in consultations, and, in general, says Trainer, the bulk of students’ questions comes in via email or chats. More ordinary directional questions are handled at a first floor desk staffed, for the most part, by students. The fact that this spot has become a kind of hub for library users has not been lost on planners and other observers. Since the first floor will be the last to be completed and plans for it are still in progress, this new hub for gathering and sharing ideas is likely to become a mainstay.

“Library use is changing a lot,” observes Trainer, and McCoy agrees. “A comprehensive program and design principles established early in the project guide our work, and the design for the long term project is complete and cohesive,” he says, while “a benefit of phasing the work is we can make specific adjustments for future work based on lessons learned from current installations.”

It may be worth noting that other current library developments this year include the respective retirements of Librarian of Congress James Billington in Washington, D.C. and, locally, of Princeton Public Library (PPL) Director Leslie Burger, whose departure is being regarded with some trepidation; under Burger’s 16-year watch, a brand new building was erected and the PPL became widely acknowledged as the community’s “living room.”

As for the University’s “mother ship,” in 1948, Princeton University President Harold W. Dodds described the library in terms of “miracles”: “the miracle of imagination kindled, prejudice thrown overboard, dogma rejected, conviction strengthened, perspective lengthened.” Karen Trainer agrees. “‘Miracles’ do happen here every day. A vague idea trickling in the back of somebody’s mind turns into a full-blown realization. There’s just so much to discover here.”

Regarding the fact that this is a ten-year project, “I can only say Firestone seems to endure because of the patience it has received,” says McCoy. It took decades to conceive and plan the original building and so it seems only right that we should take our time to prepare it for the next 70 years of service.”

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