Before the University’s new library could open in 1938, someone had to come up with a plan to fetch the books from the old library, the big round one up the hill.

That someone was legendary circulation librarian Royster “Roy” Land (Educ 1930, Grad 1931). Her plan was a human chain.

Accounts are imprecise, but the spectacle would have stretched at least 200 yards, from the Rotunda to Alderman Library. That’s door-to-door, not counting the tight staircases inside the book repositories at either end.

It’s also as the crow flies. The Grounds’ rugged topography would have made it impossible to populate a straight line from Point A to Point B. While Thomas Jefferson crowned his Rotunda atop a ridge, Alderman’s planners relegated their library to a ravine. Harry Clemons, University librarian at the time, notes the challenge in his 125-year history of the UVA library: “The abundance of terraces necessitated much carrying.”

Make that much carrying through much mud—of the red Virginia clay variety, the kind that will swallow a shoe and dye a pant leg. A Charlottesville monsoon started on cue with construction and, Clemons wrote, persisted throughout “the next twelvemonth.”

To facilitate the hand-to-hand transfer, Land commissioned custom boxes outfitted with special handles. She had the boxes sequentially labeled to keep the University’s collection in call-number order throughout the move. Not every book made it to its proper place; some took several days to locate. “But Miss Roy Land,” Clemons noted, “treated difficulty as adventure—and that spirit transfused into both readers and library assistants.”

Alderman Library is about to undertake the modern-day equivalent of that move, only in reverse. This summer, the University will begin systematically emptying Alderman Library of every jot and book title to prepare for an estimated $160 million renovation. The two-plus-year (emphasis on the plus) construction, hoped to begin sometime next year, will entail tearing off the back half of the building, those low-ceilinged warrens known as Old and New Stacks.

In their place will arise a new neoclassical addition of full-height floors and grand atria. For the first time, Alderman will present a public face, and entrance, on the north side, above University Avenue—brightly lit and within view of the Emmet Street and Ivy Road intersection, site of the recently razed Cavalier Inn and an increasingly strategic Grounds Zero as the University develops its real estate holdings to the west and north.

On Grounds, Alderman Library is second only in prominence to the Rotunda, and historically bound to it as its successor library. It’s second to none in relevance to the student experience over the past 80 years, certainly to those in the humanities or social sciences, the mission of UVA Libraries’ main branch. Its overhaul is a project with grand ambitions and mind-boggling logistics, and it relies on current thinking about the optimal use of limited library space. That has whipped up some controversy, including whether shelving for literature must give way to a station for lattes.

Dean of Libraries John M. Unsworth amid Old Stacks’ metal support shelves
Dean of Libraries John M. Unsworth amid Old Stacks’ metal support shelves, a 1938 innovation that’s now a fire hazard Adam Ewing

Indisputably, any rehabilitation is long overdue. The building still uses some vestiges of its original wiring. The plumbing requires monthly repair, according to Dean of Libraries John M. Unsworth (Grad ’88). He says, “You don’t know how much of it you may have to replace, at what expense, before you get to the next bit of good plumbing.”

The biggest issue is fire safety. In an article for this magazine’s predecessor, Clemons and architect R.E. Lee Taylor (Col 1901) boasted of creating “a fireproof building, erected of steel and concrete.” The fireproofing, however, came from liberal use of asbestos. The steel is the shelving used in the stacks, and it was given the double duty of holding books and holding up the building—meaning the chief structural support is packed full of combustible materials. In a 2018 video to make the case for renovation, Unsworth says, “I describe Alderman as a building full of students and fuel.”

There’s no sprinkler system, and the stacks’ 7.5-foot ceilings prevent the addition of one, though several fire suppression systems are in place, including heat sensors, alarms and lots of fire extinguishers.

Start at the beginning

To understand the coming Alderman Library, you have to understand the original one, starting with the choice of site. Selecting the dell that descends to Nameless Field allowed construction of a five-story building near the Rotunda that would not overshadow it. Clemons and Taylor called it “a book tower extending downward.”

Building Alderman into a hillside accounts for some of its quirks: a fourth floor that’s at street level and a first floor that’s less than three-quarters its size. And the building’s subterranean siting prompted the inclusion of two multistory open-air light wells, on either side of the bridge that connects the front of the building to Old Stacks.

Taylor designed Alderman for closed-stacks circulation, not open to the public. That’s why there’s a single, narrow main entrance—to funnel patrons into Memorial Hall, where they would riffle through the card catalog and hand their scribbled requests to the circulation staff at the main desk. They, in turn, would page workers assigned to different floors to retrieve the books. That’s why the stacks are so claustrophobic—half-height to cram 10 floors in the space of five, narrow aisles and tight metal staircases only a submariner could love.

Stairwell in Alderman Library
The stacks were never meant for the public, hence the tight metal staircases. Adam Ewing

To make it work, the design incorporated what passed for high tech in 1938. To page the floor workers, circulation clerks used a fancy intercom system—“thirty-three interior instruments and nine outside lines,” according to the story in Alumni News. The floor clerks would put the requested books on dumbwaiter elevators and send them to the fourth floor, where receiving staff would put them on a book conveyer that ferried them along the fourth-floor bridge to the main desk.

The labor-intensive system came under severe strain just a few years later, when World War II depleted the supply of labor. By 1951, the library had opened the stacks to all comers—creating the inimitable UVA experience of students and faculty spelunking their way through dark and narrow caves of the world’s knowledge.

In his writings, Clemons liked to say, “In a double sense the Alderman Library was erected in a depression,” by which he meant the ravine but also the economy. UVA built its main library for $950,000, with a federal Public Works Administration grant covering 45 percent of the cost and a bond offering covering the rest. That’s why Alderman has fairly simple lines and not much in the way of ornamentation. The main exception is Memorial Hall, with its 28-foot coffered ceiling, but even that is fairly populist in splendor. The other exception is the McGregor Room, but only because of private money (see related story, Nevermore: The stolen treasures of Alderman Library).

Past as prologue

Each of those elements—the hillside footprint, the superseded closed-stacks model and the sensible 1930s aesthetic—comes into play with plans for the renovation.

It starts with the introduction of a welcoming north facade. Alderman Library has always turned its back to Charlottesville, first in the polite neoclassical way of the original building and then more brusquely with the 1967 design for the New Stacks annex—“a bunker, essentially,” says University Architect Alice J. Raucher. “It was just a storehouse.”

The challenge for the renovation’s design team, from Chicago-based HBRA Architects, is to create a new entrance against the imposing five-story backdrop of Alderman’s north wall without detracting from the one-and-a-half story main entrance on the south side. Raucher explains, “You don’t want the new elevation to be seen as the absolute front door, and yet it’s a public face.”

The solution is a north face very much in keeping with the original back of the building, but with landscaped terraces and plazas that calm the lead-up to a pair of stolid second-floor entrances. The design is mindful not to outshine the World Heritage Site to the east, Raucher says. The opportunities for bolder, more abstract architectural statements would more appropriately come farther away from Central Grounds, she says: “The closer you get to the Rotunda, the hotter it gets.”

The new plan calls for putting glass roofs over the uninhabited five-story light wells and turning the space into second-floor atria for events and studying. The design strives for better navigability and less obstructed sight lines, whether library patrons enter from the north and work their way up to McCormick Road level or use a newly expanded main entrance on the opposite side.

Rendering of new terracing on the east side of Alderman library
Terracing, as depicted here on the east side, will better integrate Alderman with the ravine into which it was built. Courtesy HBRA Architects

More important than how people find their way is how they will find their books. Five full-height floors will replace the 10 demi-stories of stacks. To mitigate the loss of shelf space, the library will use movable compact shelves, where users operate controls to open up one aisle at a time. The same will be done on the first floor of neighboring Clemons Library, integrating the holdings there with Alderman’s and connecting the two buildings on the second floor. The collection will flow sequentially from the first floor of Clemons to the fifth floor of Alderman in continuous Library of Congress order.

For the past year, UVA has been working to expand the capacity of its nearby off-site library facility, Ivy Stacks, to 4 million volumes, more than double the original limit, all tightly packed on movable shelves as high as 32.5 feet and 220 feet long. Those shelves are emphatically closed, with workers on hydraulic cherry pickers pulling orders for 24-hour fulfillment back on Grounds.

Unreturned books

The Ivy Stacks expansion acknowledges a simple fact: Two-plus years and $160 million of renovation later, the University’s flagship research library will have fewer books readily available to scholars. That has generated angst and around 1,000 signatures to a protest petition, including those of some 150 College faculty members.

Their objections aren’t sentimental, nor are they based on an aversion to online research. No one, Unsworth included, suggests that digital technology is up to supporting intensive, precise, tenure-track humanities research.

Associate professor of English John Parker, one of the dissidents and whose research spans from antiquity to the Renaissance, says his concerns relate to the relentless efficiency required to succeed in an academic career. “You are on the clock,” he says. “The basic reality is, you have to publish a book before you come up for tenure. So you’ve got six years or you’re out.”

He can demonstrate before your eyes the dizzying speed with which a scholar must be able to spread out multiple volumes to cross-reference original sources, translations and commentaries. Then he can swivel to his computer to show why, despite equal proficiency, you can’t replicate the process online, even in the case of something as widely digitized as biblical text.

“Higher education in the humanities is one of the most cutthroat, competitive industries you can go into,” Parker says. “The entire promotional structure of higher education is based on rate of publication, and rate of publication in the humanities is based on ease of access to the widest range of materials.”

Library officials and the petitioners don’t agree on the extent to which the renovation will reduce the number of books openly available, or even on the appropriate metrics. Unsworth’s team estimates that the combined Alderman and Clemons open stacks will shrink from 1.8 million books to 1.35 million, a 25 percent decrease. The petitioners have put forth calculations showing a percentage that roughly doubles that.

Unsworth argues that improved quality in the open stacks will make up for reduced quantity. The library just completed a 15-month inventory of all holdings, a monumental if not unprecedented undertaking. The project, combined with ongoing collaboration with faculty, will help cull the shelves of materials best offloaded to Ivy. “There’s a lot of weird stuff on browsable shelves in Alderman that I am not convinced is serving anybody’s research needs,” he says, like cookbooks and books on stamp collecting.

To the extent any needed materials get shipped off to Ivy, they can be recalled to Grounds and reconsidered for staying in the open stacks.

Parker and the other petitioners offer remedies aimed at fitting more books into Alderman’s finite space: Add shelves to the corridors, to the light wells, to Memorial Hall. And relocate any activity not directly related to scholarly research. New collaboration areas, graduate student lounges, event space, the library cafe, even UVA’s Rare Book School—they argue that each of those can go elsewhere, not inside a research library.

Unsworth’s response: “We don’t have an elsewhere.” He says Alderman needs to serve multiple constituents, not just tenure-track professors performing research. “Frankly, it strikes me as a little selfish to take that view of the library. Others also need the library for very legitimate purposes.”

Parker, who is tenured, makes the point that the utility of the library for research benefits the University as a whole and in profound ways. It influences recruiting and retaining top scholars, which redounds to the overall experience, quality and reputation of a UVA education.

Unsworth says it’s in response to the petitioners’ concerns that the architects upgraded the construction requirements to accommodate more compact shelving in Clemons and throughout Alderman.

The debate is ongoing, and will be as the architects continue to develop working drawings and refine the particulars. Even so, it didn’t slow the Board of Visitors in September, when they unanimously greenlighted the project’s schematic design.

The next steps include securing state funding for the project, which private fundraising will supplement—including, Unsworth expects, through the upcoming capital campaign.

Another priority is to keep the project on track. The dean of the library hopes demolition of the stacks can begin in July 2020.

S. Richard Gard Jr. is the editor of Virginia Magazine.