Feature

A Beacon of Knowledge


Spring 1997 A Beacon of KnowledgeBy Jerry Johnston

In his short story “The Library of Babel,” fantasy writer Jorge Luis Borges tells of a library with an infinite capacity for books. Its shelves go upward forever.

The story was written 40 years ago.

Today, Borges would look like a dry-eyed realist.

In the computer age, libraries have access to the very stars. Because of electronic links with other libraries, their capacity never ends. Once thought of as a repository for knowledge–giant magnets of information–libraries today have turned the tables. The focus is outward. The world itself is the repository; the library simply sends out its tentacles to tap into its resources.

The tale of the modern library is not the tower of Babel ascending to heaven, it’s the myth of Daedalus and the Minotaur–the story of a master craftsman trying to enclose a “living thing” that is unpredictable and constantly changing.

Building such an enclosure is a daunting task.

And currently, it’s the task of the brain trust at Brigham Young University, where what will be the new and improved Harold B. Lee Library is under construction. Still in its early phases, the expansion now resembles an enormous pit without a pendulum at the very center of campus. Eventually, everything will end up underground. Yet BYU visionaries not only must make room for the items they have, they must also predict what the library will be like in 25 years and make allowances for that as well.

“The ‘living thing’ analogy is about right,” says Sterling Albrecht, the BYU University Librarian who many claim is the brains behind the bricks and mortar. “What we’re trying to do is build into the library enough flexibility so we can adjust. We’ve put a grid of electronic data wires throughout the building, for instance, that won’t even be activated until they’re needed. We’re also reinforcing all the floors so they can hold the weight if we need to go to compact shelving.”

Although a good deal of graduate school research goes on at BYU, the school views itself as a “teaching institution”–a university dedicated to helping undergraduates find direction. And the new library will be the nerve center for such hands-on, practical instruction.

“We’ll have four electronic classrooms,” says Albrecht, “and also a teleconferencing room. There’s even a 200-seat auditorium.”

And Albrecht’s favorite feature?

“I like not having the special collections scattered all over the library,” he says. “There will be a wonderful climate and environment for our rare books and manuscripts.”

In short, the new library will have a few human qualities: a strong skeletal structure, a “brain center” to store and catalog information, and a central nervous system that sends and collects impulses from the outside world.

Such a library resembles the library at Alexandria about as much as a 747 resembles a biplane. But with care and planning, the new BYU library may become a wonder in its own world, just as the library at Alexandria was a wonder in the ancient one.

Library Lore

To get a feeling for where the Harold B. Lee Library extension is heading, it’s helpful to see where libraries in general have been.

So, before discussing the 1001 wonders of the new BYU facility, here’s a whirlwind tour of library history, along with a glimpse into the next millennium.

To begin with, romantic souls like to think of the earliest cave paintings as the first libraries, though more rigorous scholars actually trace the library’s roots to the Mesopotamians in 5,000 b.c. There, the crafty and craft-wise Sumerians began scratching drawings into blocks of clay in about 3,500 b.c., then storing the blocks in baskets. BYU actually has examples of such early tablets.

In short, early libraries were so primitive they didn’t even have “Quiet, Please” signs.

While the Sumerians were stacking their tiles and titles, the Egyptians were doing the same thing with rolls of papyrus in their country while the Chinese kept gathering bamboo paintings into collections in the East. But the true “modern library” would not come on the scene for another 3,000 years. The Greeks, who gave us modern writing, gave us a modern way to store and think about it as well.

Then, about 300 b.c., the Egyptians created the library at Alexandria, a book drop that lasted 900 years. Like their counterparts today, the librarians at Alexandria were obsessed with information and literature. They copied any and all rare works brought to them, even concocting an elementary filing system to keep track of things. They didn’t worry about the political implications of the collections; they worried about preserving human insight, art, and experience in all its forms. They went at their task efficiently and with a strong distaste for governmental control.

Apparently, librarians never change.

When the library at Pergamum in Turkey began to rival Alexandria, however, the king of Egypt stopped shipping papyrus to the Turks. He didn’t want another library to outshine his own. The Turks responded by inventing parchment and–presto!–the first “information age” was upon us. A small step taken by the king of Egypt became a giant leap for mankind.

During the Dark Ages in Europe, many Catholic monks kept books alive by copying them by hand, but it would take a young man named John Gooseflesh (he later changed his name to “Gutenberg,” or “Good Mountain”) to fire the literary shot heard around the world.

In a.d. 1400, Gutenberg pulled his newfangled press out of hiding and printed up the Bible, which remains one of the most resilient and tasteful books ever made.

The rest is printing history.

The first American library was founded at Harvard in 1638 (it featured an impressive 380 volumes). That library was quickly followed by Ben Franklin’s popular “subscription library” in Philadelphia.

Out west, “Coonskin Libraries” were popular at the time of the Mormon pioneers (libraries where a raccoon pelt could buy you access to books), and many pioneers ordered the popular “Library in a Box” series from New York outlets.

Dewey gave us decimals in 1876. Andrew Carnegie made libraries his personal cause in 1880. In 1870, Congress passed a law that reshaped the Library of Congress into the treasure that we have today. A copy of every book published in America was to end up there. Today it houses more than 20 million volumes on 535 miles of shelf space.

At BYU, the J. Reuben Clark Library was established in 1962 under the direction of Ernest L. Wilkinson. Some 14 years later, it was expanded and renamed the Harold B. Lee Library. This building, with its two wings and five floors, was fine for its time. And it has long been the soul of the school. In 1975, just before the expansion, Spencer W. Kimball, then president of the LDS Church, spoke of “rolling back the frontiers of knowledge at BYU” and looked to the day when “brilliant stars” in drama, literature, music, art, and science would emerge at the school.

The new library is being promoted as a lighthouse of sorts as students make their voyages toward such lofty goals.

A Library for the Future

Randy Olsen, the deputy university librarian at BYU, was chosen to be the pointman for the project. A native of Logan, he holds two master’s degrees from BYU and is currently working on a PhD. Olsen has also become the resident expert on the nuts, bolts, pages, and plumbing of the extension. He deals in the details. But he also keeps in mind the overarching vision behind the grand design.

“We are at a transition point in history,” Olsen explains. “Our society is moving from communication by printing to communication by electronic impulses. There are still more books being published each year than the year before, but we feel that will level off the first part of the next century. That’s when we’ll enter a new age. And that’s when BYU will have to expand to reach new students. In the future, some of those students will be in Provo, but others may be living in New York City and other places.”

And what will be the first step in this brave, new world?

“At the beginning we’ll be bringing the libraries of BYU, Ricks College, LDS Business College, and BYU– Hawaii together in one virtual, electronic library,” says Olsen. “Each library will have access to materials in all the other libraries. From there, we’ll eventually branch out to include other education sites throughout the world–the libraries of LDS seminaries in other countries, for instance.”

Such global thinking is a bold move, some might even say an unnerving one. It smacks of Borges’ “never-ending library” and is the stuff of classic science fiction novels. But the new era for BYU wasn’t prompted by a dreamer. As is often the case, necessity was the mother of this grand enterprise. People shelving books at the school simply needed more shelves.

“We’d simply run out of space,” says Olsen. “We stopped storing books in the library back in 1990. That’s when we started storing them off campus in a warehouse that was once a grocery store–hardly the ideal environment for scholarly volumes.

“We also needed more space for our students. We have students sitting on the floors now, in the stairwells. It was once thought a library should be able to seat 25 percent of a school’s studentbody. We’re seating about 14 percent right now. In the new facility we’ll have room for more students, not to mention a network so that they can sit down at any table, any desk, and plug their laptop computers into a power source.”

There will be so many watts and amps and conduits involved, in fact, that the contractor was left scratching his head for a moment as he looked at the plans. Olsen checked with him.

“Surely you see this kind of thing every day,” he said.

The contractor looked at him.

“I’ve never seen a building like this one,” he said, “at least not one that provides this much electronic capability.”

Besides computer jacks and a literal web of wiring, the library has other special features. It’s the “accessories,” in fact, that give it a Cadillac feeling–a sense of quality.

Here are some “specialty items” BYU has on its menu for the new Harold B. Lee:

* The new addition will be completely underground so administrators can control temperature and humidity to preserve delicate texts and computer software. State-of-the-art engineering will protect the building from moisture and the elements.

* Four giant skylights will filter natural sunlight to all three levels of the underground library, while trees and grass will be planted over the top of the structure so students can meander across the BYU quad as they’ve done for decades. The entrance will be an enormous glass atrium. (“Students have to want to be here,” explains Olsen.)

* The library has three miles of shelving capacity, and room for 1,700,000 volumes. (The library at Alexandria, by contrast, topped out at 500,000.)

* Where there was seating in the old library for 3,347, the new version will seat 4,650. The number of lap-top computers available will go from 10 to 100. There will be 44 group study rooms instead of the current 18. The library will have 300 computers instead of 100. Some 430 new student lockers will be added.

* The library will be made of enough concrete to construct a sidewalk from Provo to the Idaho border.

* So far, almost 20,000 truckloads of dirt have been hauled from the site to make room for what amounts to a futuristic, underground city.

The list goes on: There will be three copy centers, many more reference areas, more classrooms, an imaging center, a music library, a center for students with disabilities. As the king of Siam in The King and I would say, it never stops, it’s all “etc. etc. and so forth.”

“When we were planning all this, we visited the libraries at Yale, Princeton, the New York Public Library, UCLA, the University of Southern California, and others,” says Olsen. “We used a lot of ideas. But much of what we’ve done was influenced by the library at Cornell University. We think that is one of the finest libraries in the country.”

David Corson, director of Cornell’s Kroch Library, met with the BYU contingent when they visited. He’s justifiably proud of the place where he works. It’s a state-of-the-art facility itself.

“I think what makes our library unique is not that it’s completely underground, but that it is a ‘full-service’ library, so to speak,” Corson says. “This is not just a storage facility, but we have reading rooms, staff offices, exhibition areas, and other things as well.”

Housed beneath a series of ground-level skylights, the Kroch Library features two giant atriums as its main attraction–very similar to the new extension at BYU. And much of the shelf space is dedicated to compact shelving–book shelves on wheels that roll together, creating a wall of books that can be “pried” apart at any point to permit access. In many ways, the Kroch Library will be the prototype for many future libraries. And for BYU administrators who are worried about the response of the community and studentbody, Corson says they can probably breath a little easier. The Kroch Library has been a hit.

“Our library is the most popular study area on campus,” he says. “It has been very well received. The trick was getting enough natural light into the building so that no one has a sense they are underground.”

Named for Chicago bookstore magnate Carl A. Kroch–the principal donor–Cornell’s facility opened in 1992. But for five long years before that, Corson and others dedicated their lives to making it all happen.

“I was the senior library administrator for the project,” Corson says. “So a good deal of my life was spent thinking about it.”

His assessment after five years of use?

“I found you can never build a library building too big,” he says. “We wish it were bigger, though the truth is we’re exactly where we knew we’d be at this point. And it is a beautiful facility. When the sun is going down, or there’s a cloud cover, you can watch the pattern of the sun move across the two big atriums. It’s very nice. As I said, it has been very well received.”

Analyzing a library is one thing, of course. Doing the hands-on pick-and-shovel work is quite another. A project the size of the Harold B. Lee is like building a cathedral–with some of the finish work and delicate craftsmanship rivaling the masters of old.

“There have been some real challenges,” says Douglas Welling, the
project executive for Jacobsen Construction. “For instance, the nature of the soil is like sugar sand. It likes to run. So we’ve had to be careful in the way we shore up the side hills. Then the nature of the site itself is tricky. We only have access from one side of the project, and since we’re concerned about the safety of the students, we’ve had to be extra careful.”

Welling stops short of using words like “tedious.” But he does admit the company did catch some lucky breaks. By digging an 820-foot tunnel on a “straight bore” instead of the planned “dog-leg” design, Jacobsen was able to keep 300 parking spaces in place that were slated for destruction. (At BYU, parking slots are as precious as rubies [see page 12].)

What’s more, water hasn’t been a problem. And given the extensive water-proofing system, with its layers of piping, membranes, and back-up systems, the possibility of water damage is very remote.

“The BYU people and the architects at FFKR have been good to work with all the way around,” says Welling.

If the builders had some unique problems to confront, so did the architects. Mark Wilson, an associate at FFKR, remembers the brain-storming sessions.

“We looked at many libraries around the country, and we looked at many options for the building besides putting it underground,” Wilson says. “But we saw that putting it where we did would have a negative impact at the beginning–a big hole in the middle of campus–while the above-ground options would have negative impact later because they would have been so remote.”

Does Wilson single out one aspect of the design as a particular point of pride?

“I think the atrium entry will be the jewel of the library,” he says. “It will an elegant entrance to an underground facility.”

Filling the Hole

If the Harold B. Lee library is indeed a new direction and a new focus on the future, the people involved would like the place to also bring a new image to college libraries in general.

They want the place to have a dynamic air, become a “happening place.” New bookstores–with their celebrity signing parties, readings, and in-house coffee shops–are trying to slough off their image as stodgy, pas-sive places. Libraries–in their own low-key way–hope to bury similar impressions. Once seen as quiet sanctuaries–warm bathtubs for weary scholars–new libraries want to keep things quiet, but add a “busy” quality, a sense of people on the move, getting things done. They’d like new libraries to be silent beehives. Or, perhaps more appropriate for BYU, a silent ant farm.

And the work will progress around the clock.

“This will be a very interactive library,” says McClain Bybee, an assistant vice president for advancement who heads BYU’s development efforts. “Sterling Albrecht has brought a true vision for the library, and President Merrill J. Bateman, having been the LDS Church’s Presiding Bishop, has quite a world view and experience with modern technology.”

As a principal fund-raiser for the project, Bybee is not only a true believer, but also an articulate spokesman for the enterprise.

“The library is the heart of a university,” he says. “In Medieval times, great universities were spawned from the libraries and monasteries of the Catholic Church. Today when people are deciding on a university, the first thing they ask–or at least should ask–is, ‘How strong is the library?'”

Funding libraries, however, can be like pulling teeth. Penn State University told the people at BYU Development that funding their library was the hardest thing they’d ever done. Students would die without a library, the thinking goes, but most would die before they’d contribute to one. And with BYU needing to raise $50 million for this expansion, coming up with funds has been a harrowing chore.

And while it has been a lot of work, Bybee–like the builders–feels BYU has had some good fortune shine its way.

“To begin with,” he says, “the constituency for BYU knows the importance of libraries–most have libraries in their own homes. And we’ve been able to collect donations from across the board, from small amounts to very large amounts.”

“But we’re still far from finished,” Bybee is quick to add: “We need a lot more friends who are willing to help.”

Part of the success of the fund-raising can be traced to a sophisticated marketing approach. Hand-to-hand, face-to-face contact has been vital throughout the process. And the high-minded, quality brochures have gone a long way to enhance interest and confidence in the endeavor.

An over-sized brochure, simply titled “Harold B. Lee Library,” features a pair of reading glasses carefully laid upon an ancient Latin text on its cover. Inside, the artful photographs and straight-ahead text combine to create an impression of “no nonsense sensitivity.”

Inside the brochure, President Kimball is quoted at length, with emphasis on his famous “mission statement” for BYU itself: “This university can be the refining host for many such individuals who in the future, long after they have left this campus, can lift and inspire others around the globe.”

The ultimate appeal is a benefactor’s goodness and commitment to a quality life for those to follow. A paragraph from the final pages sums up the elan of the project, the religious cornerstone that rests at the heart of the library expansion–and all other aspects of the Provo school. It is a spiritual component that–amazingly–secular writers and journalists seldom take into account when they write about the institution or try to fathom the reasons for its decisions:

The library must be able to show students the wonder of the past and complexity of the new. It must open the door for the eager seeker of truth. Indeed both the mission of the Church and of the university compel us to develop our divine potential by study and also by faith.

A Gateway to the Universe

So, the hole has been dug. Now the construction begins. Administrators hope the pain and inconvenience the project has caused students and faculty will be forgotten once they begin to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of the building. Right now, the whole project feels a little like a root canal–nothing but pain. Because of the size of the excavation (a hole deeper than that dug for the Marriott Center), destinations on campus that were once a hop, skip, and jump away seem to loom across the Grand Canyon.

There’s constant noise. And some detours send students into other buildings where they’re forced to negotiate intricate mazes and dodge seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Still, BYU students who know their LDS scriptures (and that’s a good chunk of them) know that weathering “adversity” yields good things. If they feel like mice in a maze now, they’ll be rewarded with a better school and better education at the end of the labyrinth. For now, though, the most common answer to a request for directions is simply, “Sorry. There’s no direct way to get there from here.”

“Will there come a time our library will not be up to date?” asks Olsen rhetorically. “Who can say? But right now we feel pretty good about our assessment of our needs, and our needs for the future.”

As one former student puts it: “I wish I were just starting my college education there. The new library is so modern and full of information it’s scary. But I’d like to be scared like that.”

There are concerns, of course.

Taking the lid off a world of information is tantamount to digging into Pandora’s box. Surely many of the issues that have arisen around the Internet and the World Wide Web will arise in this brave, new frontier of the virtual library.

For instance, there are concerns over intellectual property. Who owns what, and what is its price? And when the stratosphere is filled with electronic impulses, credibility is always a concern. Honest sources become vital.

And what of the headaches the Internet and other libraries are having with exploitive information–pornography and violence, for example. Will BYU be forced to more carefully police this new community of information? And if so, will litigation and censorship surface as issues?

Still, at a school where the motto is “The World Is Our Campus,” there is really no choice but to press ahead. The alternative is unthinkable. In fact, when the Harold B. Lee Library is up and running, the world will no longer be the campus. The Milky Way will be.

The universe awaits.

In the Borges short story, the author claims that the grandest library of all is the universe.

“Everything is there,” he writes. “The minute history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels . . . the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages.”

But the author finally concludes in a footnote that, in a perfect library, there would not be an infinite number of shelves, but only one book; an ordinary-looking book made of an infinite number of infinitely fine pages.

By such reckoning, the new Harold B. Lee Library will be far from perfect. But if you talk to the people who designed it, who are building it, who will run it, and who will use it, the Harold B. Lee is about as fine a library as we modern, fallible mortals could possibly come up with yet.


Jerry Johnston attended BYU in the late 1960s and is a columnist for the Salt Lake City Deseret News.

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