Cathedral Without a Soul

The new James B. Hunt Library at North Carolina State on the new Centennial Campus has been heralded as one of the finest college libraries in the nation—“the plugged-in library of the future,” according to one Scientific American blogger.

The Raleigh News & Observer gushed even more effusively, stating that “it may well be the most advanced library in the world, and is one of the most unusual buildings in the nation by any measure.” The Triangle Business Journal said it “was sure to become a destination for visitors to the area as well as a model for academic libraries around the world.”

But does it live up to that hype? More importantly, does it justify the $115.2 million in taxpayers’ money (along with another $5 million in donations) to build it and the $4,648,182 million in annual operating costs?

Unfortunately, the answer to that will have to be more art than science; there are so many unknown variables and conjectures involved with trying to predict the library’s value that no cost-benefit analysis could even approach some semblance of accuracy. However, after several visits to the library, I wonder whether, rather than being the prototype for a new kind of library, it is more like a shrine to wasted space and questionable design features.

Now, I’m no architect and I’m no librarian; I’m a rather gruff, graying higher education critic, with an economics background and tastes that run toward the classic and the traditional. I’m also not part of the herd that stampedes toward everything new, making my perspective of some minor value, at the least. And I want a lot of bang for 115 million tax-provided bucks. 

The library—named after former North Carolina governor James Hunt—is without question a big building: a five-story, 88-foot tall structure, with a footprint larger than a football field (460 feet by 180 feet at its maximum points). Inside, it has over 221,000 square feet. But it doesn’t really match the hype, looks-wise. At two ends, it is entirely glass, making it look like every other large suburban office building. Along its length, it is white with metal panels attached at right angles to the walls. The panels are actually called “solar fins” and have a functional purpose, limiting the amount of direct sunlight hitting the building’s walls.

The panels form irregular and wavy lines; the effect is impressive, but only from certain angles and in certain lights. Otherwise, it sort of seems similar to a corrugated metal manufacturing or distribution facility.

But, if you can’t judge a book by its cover, maybe it’s best not to judge a library by its outer walls.

Yet entering via the first floor lobby doesn’t improve the first impression. It’s big and empty, maybe 20 feet high, or more. It has white floors, white walls, and large white pillars, broken by a shocking yellow winding staircase leading up to the second floor.

Maybe I’m from another era, but I prefer my libraries to be warm and welcoming or grand and impressive. The Hunt Library’s first floor is about as cold and sterile as it gets, without coming close to “grand.”

The library’s much touted robotic book storage system—a “bookBot”—doesn’t heat things up much. The system’s inner workings are on full display on the first floor, behind some large interior windows. It is “one of only 12 such bookBots in the country,” according to my guide, a junior computer engineering student. Eight rows of giant stacks of metal bins for storing books stretch fifty feet from floor to ceiling; it has the capacity to store 2 million books. Each of five aisles has a “robot”—actually a computerized mechanical “picker” that stores and removes books from the shelves and returns them.

With all the shiny metal and machinery, the feel is industrial rather than intellectual. The purpose of the bookBot is to cut costs, ostensibly by reducing the labor needed to restock bookshelves. Whether it does that is anybody’s guess at this point. The Bot still requires a full-time worker, in case there’s a problem. N.C. State’s D.H. Hill Library, which until now has borne the brunt of library traffic at the college, returns roughly 800 books a day to its shelves—enough work for approximately two minimum-wage student employees working eight hours a day. The bookBot system must have cost quite a bit: it may be that the cumulative minimum wage salary for one additional worker per day putting books back on shelves is cheaper than the present future value of the Bot’s large investment.

Another reason for the Bot is to save storage space. But what is the point of saving space if the rest of the library seems to be all high ceilings, large common areas, and endless walkways? D.H. Hill stores roughly the same number of books in not much more than half the space, and has almost as many seats.

And even if there are some space gains, storing books in one space with no public access defeats another purpose of a college library, to offer students a quiet place to study; the book stacks in libraries provide privacy and muffle sound considerably. Both privacy and noise are likely to be problems for studying students when the library is fully used.

When you go to the second floor, the atmosphere changes, but not for the better: from coldly empty and industrial to … Big Brotheresque? For, at the top of the stairs, the visitor is met—or perhaps, confronted—by a series of imposing freestanding walls; the centerpiece spells out in large letters the “Institute for Emerging Issues.”  Other walls spell out “Emerging Voices,” “Emerging Connections,” and Emerging Ideas.”

The Institute is Jim Hunt’s government-funded policy think tank. It has a 24,500 square foot wing of the new library all to itself—an in-kind donation from taxpayers. Despite attempts to appear balanced and nonpartisan, its political leanings are obvious: they come from liberal Democrat Jim Hunt, who is the Institute’s board chairman, and others who think like him. Its huge presence in the new library is disconcerting.

Hunt has another state-supported think tank at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy. With so many public facilities named after him (or under his control), he’s getting to be North Carolina’s version of West Virginia’s late senator Robert Byrd.

Finally, though, you turn from the Institute and walk through the turnstiles to the library proper. Ahead of you is the Rain Garden Reading room: a vast hall with a ceiling that goes up to the fourth floor. Its bizarre color scheme, which includes clashing colors of faded green, purple, turquoise, gray, and red, and a variety of oddly shaped chairs—some twenty styles in all—sets the tone for much of the library. According to my guide, some of the unusual chairs reflect the Scandinavian roots of the library’s designer, the Norwegian architect firm Snohetta. He added that some chairs were replications of popular seating styles at D.H. Hill.

The décor was also intended to give the library a futuristic look, usually a design mistake:  Buildings built according to architects’ vision of the future tend to quickly grow out-of-date, for rarely does the future conform to architects’ future expectations. I recall from my youth the “geodesic dome” design of noted 20th century futurist Buckminster Fuller being hailed as the way of the future—it was originally hailed as a great step forward, but it has almost never been used for actual buildings.

Something else the library has is plenty of gadgetry and gimmicks. The guide took me into a small glass room—the Apple Technology Showcase (Apple is the name of a donor, not the computer company). Its contents are available to be “taken out” for free, just as if they were books.

The Apple showcase contains some really interesting stuff. Along with standard laptops are some small mini-computers, such as the Raspberry Pi, Makey Makey, and Arduino microcontrollers. These PC boards are intended to enable users to learn how to program for various electronic devices. It sounds great, but they require a high level of programming sophistication; it would be interesting to know how often they are used.

Also in the Apple Showcase were some samples of 3-D printing, which can be done at the library (at cost). 

In an alcove off of the Garden Reading Room, there is a bunch of short stools—sort of like a cross between diner stools and toadstools. They face a wall filled with “microtiles”—small flat video screens that can be viewed individually or as one large screen. The arrangement of these tightly arrayed tiles raises the question whether, if more than a few tiles are being viewed as individual screens, the effect would be horribly distracting. (The stools were also uncomfortable—with no back support and no indented seat to hold me in place, I quickly started to “slump.”)

At the far end of the library, there is a “Quiet Reading Room.” It consists of long tables and perhaps 50 chairs, walled off from the rest of the second floor by bookshelves filled with new books (imagine that!).

The quiet reading room opens onto another sitting area in front of a wall of windows overlooking Lake Raleigh. The view is spectacular, one to be enjoyed with a fresh cup of coffee and a good book (although the late afternoon sun was a little much when I was there).

Another important feature of the library is the 100 group study rooms. On the Saturday I was there, almost every group study room was in use. That all 100 were occupied, frequently by individuals, says something about what students want from a library: quiet and privacy.

The group study rooms come equipped with large displays that students can link up to with their laptops and have walls made of white board. The latter seem excessive (and expensive)—it may be “cool” for students to be able to write equations and ideas all over the walls, but one white board should be sufficient.

Furthermore, efficient use of space and funding does not improve as you go higher

Much of the third floor is taken up with the “NextGen Learning Commons.” It’s another big open area with lots of strange chairs and odd colors. To one side of the commons is the Game Lab. Although there are some game design capabilities, for the most part it is a video game players’ paradise. My guide enthusiastically told me that it was stocked with every game there is, from the Atari games of the 1980s to the most advanced games of the present. One wall was filled with micro-tiles for players; my guide said it was hoped that there would be people playing different systems on all the different tiles. Again, it seems to me that, if many students were playing action-oriented games with intense graphics on that wall at one time, it could cause somebody’s head to explode from the sensory overload.

Another wall to the game room is “smart glass,” which can change from clear to opaque gray.

On the fourth floor, things really start to get extravagant. In a “learning commons” on the west side overlooking Lake Raleigh (again, that spectacular view), individual carrels come equipped with not one, but two monitors for a single computer. The carrels also come equipped with plastic “fans,” which, I was informed, are needed to suppress the inevitable noise from the clatter of shoes on tile and buzzing conversations.

The fourth floor are also two “Creativity Studios,” that are, for lack of a better term, high-tech art galleries. There are also several rooms stocked with the latest equipment for video design.

Certainly, libraries have to evolve with the times and offer more than just books. And NC State was in desperate need of another library; according to its website, the recommended number of library seats at a college should be roughly 20 percent of the student body. At State, the main library, D.H. Hill, has only enough seats for roughly five percent of the students; the Hunt Library roughly doubles that.

But even though it is almost double the size of D.H. Hill, the Hunt Library has no greater capacity for books. Much of the space is wasted, with hallways and huge commons areas, and high ceilings.

In fact, in both form and function, the James Hunt Library seems to fall well short of the magnificent praise directed its way. I can’t recall where I read it, but somebody once described our colleges and universities as the modern American equivalent of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Supported financially by kings and patrons, both highborn and humble, the Church built magnificent cathedrals to celebrate its greatness.

In much the same way, today governments and donors give money to colleges and universities to build on a grand scale. If the new Hunt Library is indeed a sort of cathedral, perhaps one built to worship the future, it is one without a soul.