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McCabe renovations in its initial planning stages

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Last semester, the Library Committee began preparing for a series of changes to the college libraries. Headed by College Librarian Peggy Seiden, the committee took on a more ambitious role than in years past, inviting representatives from the dean’s office, Information Technology Services, the Language Resource Center, the faculty and the student body to tackle the changes. The committee’s task for this year is to contribute research and guidance to a future request for proposals, which the college will use to solicit bids from outside firms to oversee the creation of a library-specific master plan.

In order to understand what the college community needs in terms of new spaces and functions, the Library Committee hosted three student input sessions over the course of last semester. These sessions consisted of six exercises, including reactions to images of other libraries and responses to questions and prompts such as “What is one thing the library must be or communicate?” and “(McCabe, Cornell, Underhill) is the only [blank] that [blank].” In addition to these student sessions, the committee is in the process of communicating directly with faculty departments. Last semester the committee focused on social science and humanities departments, and this semester it will start conversations with the natural science and mathematics departments.

According to Seiden, there were several prominent themes for improving the libraries that came up in discussions with both the student body and the faculty. The more conceptual ideas regarding the functions of a college library included fostering community, embodying the college’s liberal arts mission, extending the classroom, creating an active public space and inspiring scholarly traits and attitudes.

The committee’s outreach also garnered more practical suggestions. Many students expressed a desire for a permanent coffee or snack bar within McCabe. Several faculty members envisioned specific functions that the library could host, such as regular film screenings, art studios, data labs and a space to display students’ academic and artistic work. For students, a big improvement would be to change the size and diversity of study spaces. Students also expressed a desire for more study spaces that are designed to be collaborative and social, and more that are designed to be quiet and individual.

Beyond functionality, much of the feedback regarding McCabe came down to aesthetics. Students and faculty alike lamented the lack of natural light and excessive closedness of McCabe’s architecture. According to Seiden, a recurring suggestion was a large, public library-style “reading room” that would provide an aesthetic of light and grandeur to better accommodate learning and scholarship.

In an email, Michael Jones, director of the LRC and member of this year’s Library Committee, presented the case for the reading room.

“I think there is a sense that the campus would like an architecturally significant addition and the spaces that most appealed to students seemed to be grand reading room spaces … that make you feel as you do when entering a cathedral, or for that matter a grand mosque, synagogue or temple,” he said. “It may not be possible, or practical, to add a space exactly like that, but maybe the architects can create a space that conveys a reverence for books and the centrality of scholarship to what Swarthmore is about.”

Besides gathering input and suggestions regarding McCabe’s flaws, the library Committee seeks to help plan actual changes.

“When facilities does their capital budget planning, they do it many, many years out … Based on how much money they think it’s going to cost, we work with them and come up with a timeframe for those sets of changes,” said Seiden.

From 2015 to 2016, the scheduled project for McCabe, according to the budget planning, is to move the library’s periodicals collection from the second floor into compact shelving in the basement. Alongside moving the periodicals downstairs, the library will review the journals it keeps on its shelves to see which can be transitioned into online-only access or moved into off-campus storage.

The space freed up on the second floor will be repurposed to several different ends. Most importantly, though, it will house a range of study spaces that students have expressed a desire for. According to Seiden, if funding is made available, the library offices will also be moved to the second floor and the space they currently occupy on the first floor will be turned into a “digital scholarship workspace.”

In the longer term, McCabe Library may pursue more ambitious projects. The final campus master plan, accessible through the college’s website, proposes major renovations of the existing building as well as expansions for McCabe to the north and south. The northern wing would be a light-filled reading room, and the southern wing would create a space for high-density storage, freeing up room in the main building and reducing the Library’s demands on external storage and the three special collections.

It remains to be seen when these longer-term projects will take place, and which ideas will be prioritized in the near term.

Aaliyah Dillion ’17, a student representative to the Library Committee last semester, discussed the complex choices that must be made moving forward.

“As of now, the real conflict comes from finding a balance between traditional and modern library styles,” she wrote in an email. “That is because on the one hand, we want McCabe to be fitted with all of the newest technology and reflect our current day and age, but on the other hand, we still want it to be reflective of the libraries people grew up with and evoke an air of community and scholarship … Even with plans for an expansion, one trade-off is that some books in the library will have to get moved into storage in order to make room for more of the new spaces that people are requesting.”

For Seiden, the whole range of suggestions that the committee received can be understood overall as the community’s need for the library to be a “third space” besides the classroom and the dorm room.

Changes to the physical space and use of McCabe are a well-established desire for much of the faculty, administration and student body. The Strategic Directions document published by the College in December 2011 argued that “Swarthmore’s libraries must evolve to reflect changes in learning and scholarship. McCabe Library was built in 1967 and typifies mid-20th century ideas of libraries as passive places for the housing and consumption of printed texts. We must re-envision the library to provide for functions as varied as quiet study, group study, informal conversation — spaces that allow our students and faculty to engage with knowledge in its many forms.”

Noting the difficulties in and reasons for bringing effect to these proposed changes, Jones wrote in an email, “I think the consensus is that the building doesn’t work terribly well, despite having a great staff and wonderful collections/resources. The building was designed in a way that doesn’t let in much light and is constructed of materials that make changes to lighting, networking, electrical and HVAC difficult and expensive.”

Three years ago, Jones led a renovation of the LRC and sees his contribution in the Library Committee as related to the lessons he learned supervising that project. He described the thinking behind the LRC renovation as “trying to create a good, attractive, inviting, flexible, teaching and learning space … I think Peggy was looking to incorporate similar ideas into the library renovation.”

Assistant Professor of History BuYun Chen spoke similarly about the past and future of McCabe in a December meeting with the board, as recorded in Seiden’s notes.

“McCabe must be the centralized location that maintains a link to traditional forms of learning and also pioneers the integration of new information technologies,” she said. “In order for McCabe to be dynamic and not a relic of the past, any new renovation must be able to adapt to the future.

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