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:: By Amy Braverman Puma

:: Images courtesy Murphy/Jahn

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Chicago Journal ::

There will be books

A new library ensures the University’s entire collection remains close at hand.

By late 2010, a glass dome will curve above the northeast corner of 57th Street and Ellis Avenue, where tennis courts now stand. Inside the transparent ellipse, students and scholars will pick up books that live 50 feet under the building, stored until a computer triggers a robotic crane to lift a volume to ground level.


The Mansueto Library, as this architectural rendering shows, will sit beside the Reg.

Connected to the Joseph Regenstein Library via a walkway, the $80 million Joe (AB’78, MBA’80) and Rika (AB’91) Mansueto Library, designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn, looks to past and future. A 6,000-square-foot preservation department will hold both a conservation laboratory to maintain fragile materials in their original forms and a digital-technology lab to preserve pages in cyberspace. A reading room will provide 8,000 square feet of study and lounge space. The underground storage will hold 3.5 million volumes across academic disciplines, room enough to accommodate the University Library’s expanding print collection—currently 7.7 million volumes in six buildings—for more than 20 years from the day Mansueto opens.

As other universities, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Brown, have moved books off-site, Chicago is the only top North American research library in several years to keep its collection on campus, says Duane Webster, executive director of the Association of Research Libraries. The move, adds Library Director Judith Nadler, also “challenges the all-too-common belief that great collections of books are becoming obsolete.”

University President Robert J. Zimmer agrees: “These scholarly materials are at the very core of intellectual life and intellectual activity at the University of Chicago,” he says. “This effort to keep the materials at the University and in the heart of our campus is a reaffirmation of their immense value.”


Patrons will read beneath glass walls.

The high-density, automated shelving and retrieval system, common in factories but relatively new to libraries, was the result of much deliberation, Nadler says. Responding to former Library Director Martin Runkle’s (AM’73) prediction that the library would soon run out of space (it reached capacity in 2007), then-provost Richard Saller convened a faculty committee in 2003. The committee studied the problem and in 2005 recommended staying on campus with browsable stacks.

But browsable stacks meant building a large new structure “that would overshadow existing buildings and that we did not have space for,” says Nadler. Although the late Skidmore, Owings & Merrill architect Walter Netsch, who designed the Regenstein Library in the 1970s, planned ahead for modular additions, those plans wouldn’t work today. “That space was taken,” Nadler explains, by the Max Palevsky Residence Commons.

“Then we learned about high-density,” says Nadler, who’s worked at the library since 1966. With Runkle, Saller, and some faculty members, she visited the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which uses such a system in its library. A high-density system, she says, “unites the best features of the different options considered. Materials that benefit significantly from browsing will be accessible on open stacks” at libraries across campus, while those “that benefit little from open browsing, such as journals for which full text is available online,” will go to high-density shelving.

In June 2005 the University Board of Trustees approved the plan to keep the print collection on campus; in May 2008, with Provost Thomas Rosenbaum now leading the effort, the University gave final approval to Jahn’s ellipse and underground-storage plan. “Jahn was concerned that the building be very different and forward-looking and symbolic of the future,” Nadler says, “but very respectful of the surroundings,” including Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy sculpture and Netsch’s brutalist design for the Reg. The Mansueto plan also accounts for environmental concerns: the glass dome relies on daylight, cutting down on electricity use. A roof skylight minimizes the urban heat-island effect. An underground storm-water detention vault decreases wear on the city’s infrastructure. To prevent birds from flying into the dome, glass above 18 feet will have 80-percent opacity. And the underground storage cuts the site footprint and fossil fuels used for heating and air conditioning. 

The design makes book retrieval equally efficient. Patrons will search the online catalogs and choose a book, journal, or other material. A click of the mouse will tell the crane to find the item—stored by size for space efficiency, books will live in bins, archival materials in boxes. Within minutes, the item will arrive at the Mansueto circulation desk. For Special Collections Research Center materials, library staffers will pick up the items at Mansueto and bring them to the Reg’s Special Collections reading room, where patrons can consult them.

Contributing to the library struck a chord with Joe Mansueto, who founded investment-research firm Morningstar in 1984. He and his wife Rika donated $25 million to the University; to recognize the gift, the library has been named for them. “Like most students at the University of Chicago,” Mansueto said in a statement, “we found the library to be a central part of the experience. Our typical days included going to Regenstein every night. So when we were looking to give a gift to the school, a new library resonated with us.”

Mansueto’s talk of “positive memories of happy hours spent in the Regenstein Library” and ensuring future Chicago students a similar experience impressed Nadler, who noted that the new building frees up space in other campus libraries for informal group study and class meetings and lectures. “The library isn’t the same as it was ten years ago, and ten years from now it won’t be the same. But the quality,” she says, “will be the same.”