March 13, 2019

Ten-Year Renovation Transforms Princeton U’s Firestone Library

TRANSFORMED SPACES: More light, more windows, and open flexible work spaces are key facets of a recently completed 10-year renovation project at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. The third floor William Elfers ’41 Reading Room is just one of many transformed spaces in the 70-year-old building. (Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University)

By Donald Gilpin

After 10 years, Princeton University has completed the renovation of its main campus library, the Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library, and the result is “a building to support modern library services and contemporary approaches to scholarship,” the University reports, with lots more light, open spaces, and flexible study and work areas.

“In short,” a University press release states, “the goal was to transform Firestone Library into an innovative 21st-century library,” and the transformations are dramatically visible on each of the six main floors.

The classic Gothic exterior of the 70-year-old library, one of the largest open-stack libraries in existence, has been maintained, but the decade of renovations has changed virtually every space in the 430,000-square-foot interior.

The renovation also incorporated a number of sustainable features to improve
the energy-efficiency of the building.

The original Firestone building and the renovated interior “are dedicated to creating an atmosphere of a ‘humanistic laboratory’ that provides spaces of comfort and delight and supports opportunities for inspiration and contemplation,” said Princeton University Architect Ron McCoy. 

Firestone is one of nine locations within Princeton University Library (PUL).

Renovation work was done in multiple phases so that the building, which is central to teaching and research at Princeton, could remain open. “One of the greatest challenges during this renovation was undergoing construction while patrons continued to use the library,” said Director of Library Finance and Administration Jeffrey Rowlands. “As Princeton University’s main library, keeping Firestone open during the renovation was important. It required extensive detailed planning and the ability to be flexible.” 

Rowlands went on to cite increased usage of the library as one measure of the success of the renovation project. During the past five years, Firestone has experienced a nearly 63 percent growth in the number of people coming to the library, he reported.

University Librarian Anne Jarvis commented on the transformed Firestone Library in light of the challenges confronting 21st-century university libraries. “The speed and scale of change facing academic libraries in recent years has been unprecedented,” she said. “We are moving beyond the concept of a library as a finite place with traditional collections to that of a library as a partner in research, teaching, and learning. Having state-of-the-art facilities is essential to providing expert guidance, discoverability, and access to the world’s rapidly evolving knowledge resources.”

Some of the new facilities include high-level security and environmentally-controlled storage facilities in rare books and special collections, which provide secure access to materials that range from an Egyptian Book of the Dead (circa 1250 BCE) to the papers of Nobel Laureate and Princeton Professor Emeritus Toni Morrison; a digital imaging studio, enabling expanded digitization of books and other library materials, providing free access to people around the world; a conservation lab to enhance preservation of materials; graduate study rooms near core subject collections; and the new Ellen and Leonard Milberg Gallery.

The Milberg Gallery and the Cotsen Children’s Library are both open to the public. 

In noting that “one of the guiding principles of the renovation was to open up the building to the light,” Rowlands emphasized the central role of students’ involvement in the planning process. “Students have different needs for study,” he said. “We tried to accommodate different styles for what students wanted in terms of study space.”

Rowlands went on to discuss his goal “to make sure that the design elements did not overshadow the function of the space.” He noted, “I was there to push back when I thought, ‘the students are not going to like that,’ or ‘that is not going to function for them.’”

PUL holdings include 10 million printed volumes, two million located in Firestone, as well as five million manuscripts, 400,000 rare or significant printed works, thousands of journals, and two million non-print items in over 200 languages. PUL also provides onsite and remote access to extensive collections of databases, digital text, data, and images.

Princeton University would not disclose the cost of the renovation project.