$52 million to revitalize Pitt's Hillman Library
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Fifty-two million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it won't change the face of Hillman Library on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
The library, built in the 1960s, has never been noted for its architectural warmth and charm. But with its 1.5 million volumes, 200 computing devices, special collections, rare books, manuscripts, photographs and cafe, it gets a heavy workout from students, faculty and scholars.
Now Hillman is slated for $52 million worth of renovations, part of a $1 billion university-wide modernization project that will unfold over the next dozen years. The library work, however, is eight to 10 years away, said Robert Pack, vice-provost for academic planning and resources management.
He said most of the investment will go to replacing the building's systems -- heating, ventilation and air conditioning, electrical lines and cables, information technology and telecommunications. Asbestos will be removed, and the interior will be redesigned to better house the library's collections.
"We're constantly building new collections, refurbishing old ones and sending things out to our storage facility," he said. The storage facility, in Point Breeze, houses several million volumes.
"We've looked at what work is likely to be needed in eight to 10 years to make sure the library is fully current for the needs of a major research library," said Dr. Pack.
The whole list of university projects will be executed on a timeline of most to least critical, he said.
"The library is in less critical condition. There's no specific need to spend major amounts of money on it right now."
The idea of the college library functioning as the heart of the campus might seem out of date, now that students can do research on their laptops without leaving their dorm rooms. But fears of library obsolescence have never panned out, said Robert L. Horrell, dean of libraries at Dartmouth College and a former librarian at Harvard and Syracuse universities.
In fact, he said, the infinite nature of the World Wide Web makes the role of libraries and librarians as critical as ever.
"Even with the incredible amount of information available on the Internet, libraries continue to be the place where students, scholars and faculty come for help in navigating all that information," he said.
In addition, he said, research libraries offer materials from all over the world that are available only in print.
"Libraries are still gathering places," Dr. Horrell continued. "We've had pressure to expand our hours and have done so. Having a cafe doesn't hurt, and the kinds of amenities that students and faculty have come to expect only enhance the collegiality.
"Ten or 20 years ago, some people wondered why renovate or expand when users can have access to information wherever they want to receive it. But our experience has been that any time a library expands, it is full of users."
That has certainly been true of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where renovated branches have seen huge increases in usage -- not just on the computers, but also in borrowing books and audio-visual items. Officials there attribute the spike to better-equipped space that is also more modern, functional and user-friendly. The Public Library Association says such increases are typical in updated facilities.
But community libraries and research libraries cater to different users. For the latter to serve its constituents, Dr. Horrell said, planners need to design a variety of spaces, including quiet spots where people can work in solitude, collaborative spaces where groups can work together and social spaces as well.
"A variety of micro-environments would be the most successful," he said. "And flexibility of space is important, because things will change quickly and you want to be able to adapt without huge costs."
One Hillman project currently under way is the renovation of the plaza surrounding the building. It had fallen into disrepair, Dr. Pack said, after the upstairs entrance of the library was closed in the 1970s due to handicap access issues. That entrance is now reopened, so the plaza is getting new paving stones, planters and trees.
"It is potentially a very nice space that has not been used for a long time," he said. "We want to bring it back. In an urban university, public spaces are very important."
First Published May 15, 2007 11:00 pm