Fifty years ago, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library opened to mixed reviews.
“The whole thing’s built crooked,” one construction worker told the News in 1963.
Many at the time felt the building was out of touch with Yale’s famous Gothic style, but nobody could deny that the architecture was groundbreaking. At a talk honoring the Beinecke’s 50th anniversary last week, Architecture School Dean Robert A.M. Stern described the Beinecke as “Yale’s new center of gravity” and “the jewel in the University’s new crown of modernity.” Since its opening, the library has become a pioneer in the collection of rare books and manuscripts, and is accessed by scholars from all over the world.
Consuelo Dutschke, curator of medieval and renaissance manuscripts at Columbia University, said that the Beinecke’s collection is growing like none other.
“It is absolutely — I can guarantee to you — the absolute premier institution in the U.S. for buying medieval manuscripts,” she said. “Their collection is growing more furiously, more grandly, than any other institution in the country.”
But as the Beinecke begins its 50th year, the library is running into problems with its present facilities. Head of access services Steve Jones admitted the library has “been out of storage space for a while.” Due to the growing collection, materials are increasingly being sent to an offsite storage facility in Hamden, Conn. Access Archivist Michael Rush said there has been a “longstanding imbalance” between the library’s rate of acquisition and the relatively slow speed with which librarians can catalogue new materials.
THE IDEAL CONDITIONS
Upon its construction, the Beinecke sparked controversy not only due to its unusual appearance but also for what students felt was a lavish display of wealth. Funded by a generous donation from the Beinecke brothers, all three of whom were Yale graduates, the Beinecke was commissioned in the wake of concerns that Sterling Memorial Library was no longer equipped to deal with Yale’s growing collection. Sterling lacked the air conditioning and humidity control needed to best preserve its documents, an obstacle that worked against Yale’s desire to become a leader in the collection of rare books.
The Beinecke was designed using state-of-the-art technology able to maintain the temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity at 60 percent — the ideal conditions for housing fragile documents. Particular care went into choosing the best type of stone to line the walls, Stern said at his talk. The material needed to not only be sliced thin enough to allow sunlight to penetrate, but also robust enough to withstand the weather. The translucent marble slabs chosen are often cited as the building’s most outstanding feature, Stern said.
“It’s one heck of a building,” Beinecke Director E.C. Schroeder said. “It’s a building that, as you bring visitors in, they come to the door and their eyes light up.”
The library celebrates the fact it has never undergone any major structural revisions since 1963, and it currently houses 180,000 of its rare books in a glass tower for all to see, with a further 320,000 kept below the plaza.
Although the library has become integral to Yale’s campus, librarians interviewed expressed concern that the building is not equipped to deal with its rapidly growing collection and aims of increasing accessibility to its resources. At the top of the library’s targets is to increase accessibility for students, particularly with regards to teaching, Beinecke spokeswoman Zoe Keller said. This semester, an unprecedented five classes are taking place in the Beinecke, but Schroeder said he would like to see the number increase even further.
“We could easily use at least one or two more classrooms,” Schroeder said.
Despite its architectural restrictions, the Beinecke is taking a number of steps to encourage students, professors and the public to access its materials. Keller, the Beinecke spokeswoman, emphasized the library’s desire to broaden its outreach, and said students should not be intimidated by the library’s façade.
“I’d say what’s different in recent years as opposed to recent past is that the mission of accessibility is now forefront,” she said. “Because of the architecture, there is perhaps the illusion of exclusivity, but in fact any serious researcher can access incredibly rare materials as prime resources.”
To encourage physical interaction with the materials, the library has implemented a policy change allowing students to handle manuscripts with bare hands and people to take photographs in the reading room for personal use.
At the heart of the library’s desire to bring more students into its doors is its position as a pioneer in rare book and manuscript research. Barbara Shailor, deputy provost for the arts and a former Beinecke director, said that the research done by students working with manuscripts has the potential to spark discussion on a national scale.
“In the field of medieval manuscripts we look for things that have potentially not been published, authors that are either unknown or not well-known,” Shailor said. “We look for pieces that really have the potential to change the discipline, and actively acquire items that might make a difference to the future of the field.”
The move toward staging more exhibitions and increasing classroom teaching through a series of renovations is evidence of the Beinecke’s desire to combat its limited space, ultimately allowing the library to reach out to a broader audience.
The Beinecke was designed by Gordon Bunshaft, winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, and opened on Oct. 14, 1963.