Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

I was researching how modern research libraries are built in the last five years and came across this gem – the new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, which opened May 16, 2011.

It houses cutting-edge facilities for preservation and digitization of physical books, as well as a high-density underground storage system with the capacity to hold 3.5 million volume equivalents.  The beautiful elliptical dome of the Mansueto Library’s Grand Reading Room is on the prime central location on campus and provides an inviting space for rigorous scholarship in an array of fields.

So this academic library is the heart of the university; however, books are stored in the basement. Then again, they are retrieved at such high speed that they can be accessed quicker than books that are shelved in open stacks.  I would also imagine that the problems with mis-shelved books are eliminated by the RFID technology.  Another thought floating in my mind is: for how long this expensive storage system will be used.  Will libraries keep physical books, or is this done only temporarily to accommodate the copyright laws?

And finally, the glass dome brings to mind scenes from science fiction movies, while the long wooden tables and simple chairs look like the ones I saw in Collegium Maius at the Jagiellonian University where Copernicus studied – conducive to collaborative learning and sharing ideas.   They seem to signal a movement away from the solitude and the isolation of carrels towards collaborative learning and knowledge generation in the common gathering place, a center of intellectual, artistic, spiritual and political life of the university.  In Copernicus’ time, the students and the professors gathered, ate at such tables and discussed ideas.  The classroom was, in fact, a kind of library with very few books that allowed food and drink and talking.  Out of that came De revolutionibus orbium celestium that began the scientific revolution.  This informal teaching and learning where discussion and questioning were encouraged, produced the bold statement that the universe is not what it seems but a subject that human mind should and can explain. 

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