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A Dose of History


This week a student came to do a staff development presentation for us here in the library. He’d done his senior thesis on the history of the library building and the stylistic metaphors each incarnation used as a foundation.

I was completely captivated. I wish I’d taken notes because now the talk is receding into a mysterious and tantalizing blur of impressions and phrases. “The second building to be built on campus was the library.” … “The original library was built in what was, at the time, the quintessential library style. Anyone would have looked at that building and known it was a library.” … “The 1956 building strove for universality of style, a very modernist enterprise.” … “Two art history professors were the driving forces for bringing buildings in the modern style to Carleton.” … “The 1984 building was designed to fit with the buildings that made up its context.”

I haven’t been able to find an image of the 1956 version of our building, but what I found striking about the remodel wasn’t brought up in the talk. The 1956 building (which I can’t find an image of, sorry) had a grand “drawbridge” entrance, which was supposed to “usher students into the halls of learning” or something like that. But it also had the effect of making the library something that stood apart, something that you had to cross a long bridge to get to. The new building entrance seems to lean forward to be part of the campus rather than reserve itself as a hallowed destination.

Published inCarletonLibraries and Librarians


  1. Catherine Catherine

    I’m struck by how much the first building in this post looks like Peters Hall at my alma mater, Oberlin College. (I actually had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t the same building!) Is this kind of like how all the Carnegie libraries look alike?

    To my knowledge, though, Peters has never been a library.

  2. Katie Katie

    Whereas I thought it looked like Altgeld Hall on Illinois’ campus, but with the round tower instead of a bell tower. Altgeld’s now the home of the Math department and houses the Math Library, but it was the original University Library on campus.

  3. Laura Laura

    I wonder if the 1956 drawbridge version looked at all like the drawbridge that leads to Grinnell’s library, which you can only sort of see in this picture. What a cool presentation!

  4. Iris Iris

    Laura, the 1956 version did look similar to that, except that there was only one floor at or above ground level, rather than two.

    Katie, the building that used to be our library is now the home of the writing center and Cinema and Media Studies. I’m always fascinated by the way older campus buildings get repurposed.

    And yes, Catherine, there is a striking similarity to Peters Hall. I don’t remember which “[blank] revival” style the building is (not quite gothic revival), but it must have been awfully popular as a campus-y building in the last 1800s.

  5. Iris Iris

    See, I think the Cutler Hall is true Gothic Revival, but the rounded arch over the Scoville Hall doorway marked it as something else, this student told us. He called it “[something]-Gothic Revival”… I just can’t remember what that “something” was. Again… notes would probably have been a good idea. :)

  6. Catherine Catherine

    Oh, hey, I missed the whole “drawbridge” part of the discussion, but Oberlin has one of those, too, leading into the main library (Seeley G. Mudd). It’s hard to see in this photo, but it’s there.

    I always thought it looked like a grotesque tongue leading into the gaping maw of the building.

  7. Iris Iris

    Wow. The idea of the tongue and maw is actually quite apt. Over the past week, I’ve looked at a lot of libraries that have that drawbridge motif and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost never a good stylistic idea. People always seem to *think* it’s a nice metaphor for being ushered into the halls of learning… but it almost always comes off either tongue-like or stand-off-ish.

    Maybe this is a case of metaphors shifting meaning over time… or maybe it’s just me. :-)

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