Bibliophiles rejoice: Despite the rise of the e-book, there is still a haven where the printed word reigns supreme. In 2004, the University of Chicago libraries were almost out of room, and for a university that acquires 150,000 volumes annually, the problem was quickly becoming critical. But while other institutions flocked to off-site storage solutions, “our faculty was strongly opposed to something that would remove materials from campus,” says Judith Nadler, director of the university library system and university librarian. Nadler herself thinks that “you exercise a kind of censorship of materials that are housed remotely.” With that decision made, a competition was launched for an on-campus library that could house 3.5 million volumes.

Helmut Jahn, FAIA, of Murphy/Jahn Architects, won the commission for the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library in part by suggesting that a large new facility shouldn’t be shoehorned into the already crowded heart of campus. Rather, he suggested, the university should look to place the bulk of the structure below grade. “It was significantly more attractive in terms of preserving the open quadrangle,” Jahn says.

In a feat of spatial sleight of hand, the new library plays host to a massive storage space in what appears to be a slight and deferential building. An elliptical glass dome—composed of 691 glazed panels and reaching 35 feet tall at its highest point—encloses a 180-seat reading room and a conservation and preservation department. “It’s executed technically in a very straightforward way with very minimal structure,” Jahn says. “It’s not an idea about minimalism, but the underlying goal or aim is to take away from a building anything that isn’t necessary.”

Around the base of the dome, the glass is transparent to allow unobstructed views, but roughly a third of the way up, a ceramic frit covering 57 percent of the interior surface of the outer lite of each panel helps to reduce glare. The envelope filters out 98 percent of ultraviolet rays and 73 percent of the solar heat, while still admitting 50 percent visible light to illuminate the reading room and conservation areas.

The reading room has long tables, wired for power and Internet access, running down the center of the space, which is punctuated by smaller tables and benches around the perimeter. Metal columns conceal the mechanical systems, and are topped by light fixtures that provide indirect illumination in the evening hours.

At the north end is the conservation and restoration area where volumes and documents are cleaned, repaired, and preserved for future use. Some areas are enclosed for light-sensitive materials, and enclosed carrels are available for visitors to view fragile materials. Also included is a digital preservation department, where volumes are scanned for inclusion in the university’s growing digital database.

The basement level—which is climate controlled to preserve the materials within—is 55 feet high to accommodate the massive storage system, which had only recently been employed for library storage. Currently 1 million volumes are stored in some of the system’s 24,000 metal bins and 1,200 archival racks, leaving plenty of room to grow. Once the school’s Web-based catalog receives a request, it activates the retrieval system, which uses automated cranes to retrieve the specific bin. The average retrieval time is five minutes.

The goal was to encourage use of the library system by giving students “a beautiful place, an attractive place, and then let them find out that it is the only place that they can get what they need,” Nadler says. And, Jahn says, “the result is a new building type. There isn’t a single library like this. It’s a different and new architectural problem, and it created a different and new type of library.”

Project Credits

Project Joe and Rika Mansueto Library, Chicago
Client The University of Chicago, Chicago
Architect Murphy/Jahn Architects, Chicago
Interior Lykouria
Dome Structure Werner Sobek
Foundation Structure Halvorson and Partners
M/E/P Engineer Environmental Systems Design
Civil and Landscape Terra Engineering
Lighting Designer L-Plan Lighting Design
Contractor Barton Malow
Size 50,650 gross square feet