(Photo by: Jay Paul, Courtesy VCU Libraries)
It’s 1:03 a.m. at VCU’s Cabell Library, and on this night during the walkup to first semester exams, you can hardly find a seat.
Exams aside, Cabell is like this on many nights, university officials say. The library churns most days in a round-the-clock operation that was inaugurated about four years ago to match a rising tide of students. Over the past decade, the number of visitors to the library — named for Richmond author James Branch Cabell — has doubled, to more than 2 million. VCU officials say it’s the busiest academic library in the state, with even more visitors than the Library of Congress.
“There are hundreds of people in here at 3 and 4 o’clock in the morning,” says University Librarian John Ulmschneider.
In the 2014-2015 academic year, the library served 130,000 students between midnight and 7 a.m. That comes as no surprise to Heran Beniam, a 20-year-old health sciences major from Alexandria. “I know a lot of people who work all day. So, the only time they can study is at night,” says Beniam, a lacrosse player who is a library night owl.
The onslaught of students seeking a quiet place to study at all hours is one of the reasons the university recently completed a 93,000-square-foot addition to the library, bringing the total size to 156,000 square feet, and has reconstructed 63,000 feet in the original building.
But it’s still a tight squeeze.
“Before we built this addition, students had an average of 5 square feet per student for study; by contrast, [the College of] William & Mary had 40. Even with this new space, we’ve only gone up to about 8 square feet,” says Kelly J. Gotschalk, director of development and major gifts for VCU Libraries.
Cabell was erected in 1970 and expanded to its current five-floor configuration in 1975. It was designed to serve 17,000 students. Today, it serves a student population of more than 31,000.
A public dedication of the “new Cabell,” as some are calling it, will take place on March 15. But for months, Ulmschneider has been leading hard-hat tours of the $50.8 million library addition.
“When we went to college, we had what were called study carrels,” Ulmschneider says to Jack Spain, a retired Richmond lawyer, on a recent tour. “We don’t have study carrels anymore. Instead, we have these spaces that we call study retreats.”
The retreats have a door, but there’s an open space at the bottom. Ulmschneider jokes that it’s so librarians can be sure that students have their feet on the floor.
“We don’t want any hanky-panky,” he says, setting a cheerful tone for the tour.
Cheerful is not a word that anyone associated with the old Cabell Library. It was built in what Ulmschneider describes as the “brutalist” style. “It was a form of architecture that designed buildings like fortresses. They’re like bunkers.”
Besides adding more space, the new four-story addition gives the old library a vibrant, 21st-century face wrapped in glass. Staring out at visitors onto Shafer Court will be a nearly two-story video wall called a vitrine. LEDs embedded in the 19- by 23–foot screen will have the capability of displaying art, supersized book covers and maybe even a Rams basketball game.“There is no other display like this in Virginia, and we know of only three or four east of the Mississippi,” Ulmschneider says.
The design architect for the new library was Shepley Bulfinch, an international architecture planning and interior design firm, in association with Moseley Architects of Richmond. Janette Blackburn, a principal with Shepley Bulfinch in Boston, didn’t have to think long about what was, for her, the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the library’s design: “The transformation of the large service pit in the center of the campus into one of the most welcoming and inviting places to be,” she says, referring to what was a loading dock for the library.
The new Cabell has a terrace on the third floor for outdoor receptions and events under the stars. And the library itself will become a showcase for the more than 3,100 pieces of art that it inherited from VCU’s old Anderson Gallery.
VCU Libraries is working to raise $6 million over the next five years to furnish and outfit the new building and create two endowed funds to provide ongoing support for key areas: Special Collections and Archives, and the Library of the Future Fund, to provide for replacement of equipment and furnishings as they wear out or become obsolete.
“When I came here in 1999, all the furniture in this building was from 1975, when they built it. We didn’t get rid of that furniture until 2012,” Ulmschneider says. “I thought to myself, I don’t want my successor in 2045 to have this same stuff that we put in here in 2015.”
Grand Opening Celebration
James Branch Cabell Library
901 Park Ave. 828-1111 or library.vcu.edu
March 15, 5 to 6:30 p.m.