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The Tactile Library

Fine arts library creates a new collection of building and design materials

Sustainable materials, such as those shown here, make up the Materials Collection. Ali Burke

In a small, windowless room in the Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, a new library collection is growing. The room’s shelves are lined with boxes of all sizes filled with rectangles of orange and aqua dichromatic glass, textured wood tiles, rubber bricks in bold primary colors, carbon aerogel (the lightest solid on Earth) and pieces of insulation made of fungus.

The Materials Collection, as it is called, is a hands-on resource offering easy access to supplies to inspire students’ building and design projects.

“I like to think of this collection as a petting zoo,” says Rebecca Cooper Coleman, the librarian currently managing the collection, “because it’s extremely tactile and a little unruly.”

The idea for the collection came about last year, when Fiske Kimball librarians discovered that professors in the School of Architecture were collecting building and design materials for their own teaching purposes, storing containers full of tiles and glass in closets and offices and bringing them to class when needed.

PlayGuard Safety Surfacing (shown here), often used on playgrounds and activity areas, is made from recycled materials using a low embodied energy manufacturing process.

The collection presents some cataloging and organizational challenges: materials, unlike books, cannot be organized by author or editor, by subject or by number of pages. “There is no rule book” for how to curate a collection like this, says Coleman, so the process evolves along with the scope of the project.

Items are cataloged by physical properties and qualities, such as “red,” or “reflective,” and by intended use. Eventually, students who work with the collection will be able to share how a material was used and add any qualities discovered in the building process.

Right now, the collection’s focus on innovative and sustainable materials supports the architecture curriculum, but it could expand to other departments, such as drama, chemistry and materials science, and the Charlottesville design community.

As the collection grows, says Coleman, the library is "interested in anything that’s totally new and interesting. If it’s particularly light but strong, if it’s amazingly reflective but concrete—all of those aspects that might inspire a designer to realize that the built environment can go in a new direction. Part of the fun and innovation of design is to do something new with a material.”