South view: new "crystal pavilion," tower, and gateway, bookended by Perkins on left and Old Chem on right.
South view: new "crystal pavilion," tower, and gateway, bookended by Perkins on left and Old Chem on right.

Building Beyond Books

Perkins Library occupies prime real estate at the physical heart of campus and prime real estate at its intellectual soul. But this home of ideas needs renovating, and the plan to rearrange the space will also rearrange some ways of thinking
Writer: 
October 1, 2002

It's 2012, and members of the Class of 2002 are back on campus for their tenth reunion. As they meander through the stone gates of Chapel Drive, down past the gardens and up past the Allen Building, they take in views of looming stone and graceful plantings, at once familiar and evocative. But then they reach the Main Quad, and the sense of the known is touched with a sense of difference--a reorientation of the Duke they remember, a change at whose heart sits Perkins Library.

As they enter the library, that change is more apparent. Gone are the cramped spaces, the scattered service desks, the unreachable outdoor space in the center. In their place have arisen galleries, seminar rooms, special-collections centers, consolidated service points, and a gleaming, glass-roofed atrium. A new tower of reading rooms and study spaces hovers over a walkway and lets readers glance up from their studies to see Duke Chapel. And all around are comfortable seats, technology terminals, and the ever-present shelves of books.

Reorientation underpins all of the changes. Reorientation of physical space within the building, as services are gathered into convenient central areas and study spaces meet social spaces. Reorientation of thinking, as the needs of high technology co-exist with but never overwhelm the reliability of the printed word. Even reorientation of the geography of West Campus itself, as the plans call for the library to anchor a new vista sweeping up from the Sarah P. Duke Gardens through the new tower gateway to the new science and engineering campus, an axis crossing the long traditional line from the Davison Building to Crowell Quad. And this reorientation is the accomplishment of today's Perkins Library master plan, which started in August 2000 with focus groups and committee discussions, continued with the construction of off-site book shelving at the Library Service Center completed last year, and now, following the recent approval of the design by the board of trustees, is ready for three phases of construction that will take the cramped, rambling structure from its current incarnation into the future.

The library has undergone major changes before. When it was built in 1928, Julian Abele had held to J.B. Duke's idea of the library joining the Chapel and divinity school as a major part of the young campus. An initial expansion took place in 1948, followed by a doubling of space in 1968. And while that 1968 renovation gained room for books and cataloguing, it is cited by most involved in today's planning as "crummy" and "a disaster," partly because of the way library services are evolving from staff-oriented to reader-oriented, and partly because of technology.

"This building is a nightmare to use--it's a pretty tired facility. It's not of the caliber that one would expect of Duke University," says University Librarian David Ferriero, who came to Duke from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1996 knowing that a major renovation lay in the near future. "The three pieces of the building--1928, 1948, and 1968--were never integrated very well, so in terms of arranging collections and facilitating the flow of people, it doesn't work. We have at least seven different service points on four different floors. We should give an award to the student or researcher who is successful in this building--it's just very difficult to find your way around."

Not only did the complexities make it difficult to navigate the floor plans, but they also hindered the best use of the library for study and research. "When you look at the situation at Duke, you see the changing nature of library collections and operations, and that has certain implications," says Bob Byrd '72, director of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections library, who co-chaired the library's strategic planning committee and chaired the renovation committee. "If you have a building forty years old and it hasn't had a major renovation, you know it isn't really designed for and doesn't have the infrastructure for the kind of information transfer that is essential today--wiring, wireless networks, even electrical outlets. You also know that its major mechanical systems are at the end of their life. So all of that has to be redone because you have a thirty-plus-year-old building.

"You also have the fact that Duke as an institution has grown and changed. In 1969, we added our two millionth volume--we have pased five million. The student body at Duke was 7,250 in 1968-69, with 4,700 undergraduates--it's now 6,200 undergraduates, and 11,200 overall."

The need for overhaul has been recognized for years, and groundwork was laid in the 1990s with architectural studies and use surveys. When the current process began in earnest more than two years ago, Provost Peter Lange charged the committee to "think creatively about the nature of library services and facilities needed at Duke over the next fifteen to twenty years," while focusing on "the evolving nature of library services in relationship to changes in Duke's curriculum, information technology, scholarly communication, and campus facilities."

That charge served the architects for the project, the Boston firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, whose history goes back to H.H. Richardson and whose work includes research libraries at Dartmouth and Columbia. Geoff Freeman, Shepley Bulfinch's choice for the Duke project, brought an awareness of new directions in library design and an enthusiasm for Duke's specific needs.

"In the last few years, we have been experiencing an intense period of re-evaluation of the role of the library in the academic life of a great university," Freeman says. "Like most all other major institutions, Duke faces the challenge of needing to revitalize its library as a center of intellectual life.

"The glaring issue facing Duke has to do with the disparity between the present, physical environment of the Perkins Library and the quality of research and scholarship expected of its students and faculty. Having worked on more than seventy-five academic libraries across the country, I have never seen a larger disconnect between the library as a physical place and the quality of intellectual life of the campus. It's almost as if Duke has somehow just rolled along despite the inability of the Perkins building to respond to dramatic changes in learning and research styles and advances in information technology. Perkins offers extraordinary services and an excellent collection, but what's missing is a physical environment that can respond to and substantially enhance the academic experience at Duke--a library that can move forward with the aspirations of the institution."

"I want very much for the library to become a center of learning on campus," Lange says. "Our library has been very good at holding resources, but it hasn't been a place where people flock just to be there and do their learning there. That's something we want to enhance with this renovation."

And so the new Perkins, whose first phase will begin with groundbreaking in April and end two years later, to be followed by the completion of the second phase in 2007 and the third in 2009, brings together resources and readers, people and the place. The challenge, says Lange, is "finding the right balance. The library really should be the node that's bringing all these learning resources and research resources together, and that's a huge challenge because it represents a transformation both of libraries and librarians."

The librarians--Ferriero, Byrd, and the rest of the staff--speak of the challenge with a certain anticipation. "What we want to produce is a building that really assists learning and scholarship as they are occurring now, that at the same time inspires an appreciation for learning and attracts people to be involved in that process," Byrd says. "We want to create a facility that promotes a partnership among faculty, students, and librarians in the learning process."

South view: new "crystal pavilion," tower, and gateway, bookended by Perkins on left and Old Chem on right

Perkins Library Renovations, first floor view.

New modes of teaching and learning, such as those emphasized by Curriculum 2000, were a serious consideration during the planning process. "It feeds in because the library will play an important role in preparing students to do research in a much more complicated environment than the old one, where you went to the library, got a book or read a journal, and left," says Lange. "Now we have electronic resources of all kinds, so the library is a very important part of teaching our undergraduates how to use this very wide range of learning resources and research resources. And obviously, to the extent that Curriculum 2000 represented a real step up in Duke's commitment to a rigorous, full-blown liberal-arts education, enhancing the library is very consistent with that purpose."

"Libraries play both a social role and a curriculum-support role," says Ferriero. "The message that we heard constantly during the renovation committee process, from both undergraduates and graduates, is that they need spaces where groups of students can get together to do work, because of the emphasis on group work in the curriculum."

That idea of bringing students together caused some lively discussions at the renovation committee, Ferriero says, because it began to bring the library into the role of provider of social space. "In some arenas, that has been kind of controversial--should the library be playing that role?" he recounts. "There was a kind of tension between some of the faculty and graduate students, who thought that social space was frivolous and had no place in a library, and some of the undergraduates, and there were some wonderful discussions back and forth. Finally, one faculty member stood up and said, 'Wait! Research is social!' It broke the logjam."

"Our whole definition of what we mean by social--and we're not talking about party space--is space that facilitates people working together. We have deliberately created new kinds of spaces that will draw people," he says, pointing on the floor plans to classrooms, meeting rooms, and large areas for chairs and tables. "This is an academic center, so we would encourage faculty members to hold classes in the library. There are all kinds of small group and individual study areas where we would expect all kinds of programming to take place. We're not creating a community center here, but we would expect and encourage lots of different segments of the community to use the space."

The other area of intense discussion revolved around technology and how far to take the library in a high-tech direction. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Do Libraries Really Need Books?", examined a trend among some libraries that emphasize new technologies over more traditional book-oriented uses of the library. A $53-million renovation at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities library, for instance, banished all books either to the basement or to other libraries and placed such new high-tech toys as digital media centers and a supercomputer institute in the old library space.

Duke is cited in the article as one of several institutions that "have renovation and construction plans that emphasize the new technological roles of the library." But not at the expense of the book, Ferriero insists, noting that during planning discussions, even while undergraduates were focused on "an exciting space," faculty and graduate students were equally conscious of "reliance on the book."

"It's a complicated picture," says Byrd. "At the same time that you have access to information becoming less dependent upon place, you still have the need for a place to engage in this continuum of activities relating to information, from identification of sources to gathering information to evaluating information to then producing materials out of what you've gathered. What we have here, in a sense, is a structure that is no longer conducive to that activity as it occurs."

"For a while there," says architect Freeman, "we saw everybody saying that we're going to wire the campuses, a port for every pillow--students will get information electronically, faculty will have it delivered, but we're not going to see libraries as being the center of life anymore. But subsequent to that, as we began renewing libraries and bringing the technology and integrating new information formats, we found that libraries were used more intensely."

"Our responsibility as one of the 124 research libraries in North America is to ensure that this world of recorded knowledge is available in perpetuity," says Ferriero. "Given the rapid changes in technology, our concern is the ability to read that information in a few years. Or a hundred years. We understand paper much more than we understand digital information. We'll be faced with this dilemma for a while, having to present both paper and digital information."

This is where flexibility has been built into the plans, he says, to allow librarians to keep up with the relentless evolution of technology even as they maintain the traditional book stacks and paper archives. The first step was the opening of the Library Service Center last April, the off-site shelving facility (located on Durham's Anson Street) that has room for up to 3 million bar-coded volumes in its current configuration and that could be expanded to as many as 15 million volumes. Books stored at the facility can be requested online or at a Perkins help desk, and can be picked up within twenty-four hours--a process similar to interlibrary loans but faster. "The fact that we were able to get that up and operating in such a short period of time has been phenomenal," says Ferriero. "It's great space. We're in good shape now to be able to think about moving some material out there to give us the swing space we need to do the renovation."

More flexibility can be seen in the mechanical section of the new plans--wiring is being centralized, both wireless and Ethernet connectivity are planned, and mechanical systems are being designed for easy access. Servers and support for online resources will be consolidated on one floor, ready to drive the library's main website and all of the smaller ones that feed into it. "We have enabled our users to do a fair amount from their dorms and their homes and wherever they're doing their work," says Ferriero, "so they come here better prepared to start at a different point in their work." Still, he says, that point is often still a low-tech one. "It will be many years before anyone is able to do all of their work with electronic resources. There is still the need for paper--all of the material they need has not yet been digitized. Convincing especially undergraduates that that is the case is a challenge."

And the more digital the library becomes, Ferriero says, the busier the actual physical library becomes. "Our experience has been that the digital library actually drives the demand for the physical library. The more we deliver electronically, the busier we are in-house." In fact, while some university libraries elsewhere report declining circulation figures, Duke's library system circulated more than half a million volumes in 2000-2001. "Our circulation figures continue to rise," says Ferriero, "and we have more people than we ever had before."

Ultimately, if all goes according to these thorough, careful plans, the new library will marry its role as the intellectual soul of the university with a new identity as its nerve center, and do so with an energy and visibility that has been lacking in the past. It will be a destination--a place.

At a discussion last year with the Arts and Sciences council, Bob Byrd says, he had been summarizing architectural recommendations, committee meetings, and practical, physical details. During a question-and-answer session at the end, someone brought up "the aesthetics and appeal of the environment." And so, he adds, "it is in the vision statement, the sense of our trying to create spaces that become destination spaces, that are memorable, that really attract people to want to engage in intellectual activity."

"How many other campuses have you been on where you can't find the library?" Ferriero asks, describing the way Perkins blends unobtrusively with Old Chem, Allen Building, and the rest of the Academic Quad buildings. "We want to change that--we want to make it a more visible symbol of learning."

At the same time, he says, the committee and architects have worked hard to create a place that will not so shock Class of 2002 returnees in 2012 that they'll wonder which campus they've wandered onto by mistake. "In the years I've been here, I've talked to lots of alums," he says. "The minute I tell them I'm the university librarian, their eyes light up and they start telling stories. A lot of couples met here in the library. So whatever we do here, we can't destroy the quality of those kinds of memories. We're really conscious that we don't change the space to such an extent that people are not able to make the same kinds of connections in their memories when they come back here."

"It's been incredibly exciting to think about what the future might look like in terms of physical space here," Ferriero says. "Thinking about what the world is going to look like over the next twenty-five years, and what that means in terms of designing a space. There's just so much going on, and so much potential to be a major player in terms of what's going on with teaching and research. This is without question the most exciting time for libraries, and for Duke's library."

--Philip Tinari '01 provided research assistance.