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‘Sky’s the limit’ at U of C’s new $81 million library

The University Chicago new Joe RikMansuelibrary where unique engineering bold design come together heart campus foster intellectual discovery. Students GrReading

The University of Chicago new Joe and Rika Mansueto library, where unique engineering and bold design come together at the heart of campus to foster intellectual discovery. Students in the Grand Reading room Monday, May 16, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 18, 2011 12:29AM



An $81 million library opened Monday at the University of Chicago.

And there’s not a book in sight.

Designed by architect Helmut Jahn, the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library provides 180 seats for students and faculty to study under a glass dome constructed from 691 panels, none of them exactly the same shape. The library also expands digitization and conservation operations for the university’s collections, which include a piece of a Gutenberg Bible and books printed on papyrus, ancient Egypt’s version of paper.

Fifty feet below ground on the Hyde Park campus, a system of five automated cranes retrieves and stores volumes that are sorted according to book size, not content. The new library has room for 3.5 million volumes in the underground area, which is not accessible to anyone but select library staff.

“I’ve been in this business a long time,” said Judith Nadler, the university’s director of libraries who started her career at U of C as a translator in 1966. “Never have I seen a library that so much gives you the sense that the sky’s the limit.”

When Nadler started in the university’s library system, the libraries were a scattered group of single-discipline collections. In 1970, the opening of the school’s Joseph Regenstein Library offered students and staff an interdisciplinary library, a reflection of the changing nature of a university education. The Mansueto library is the next step, one with an emphasis on technology.

For Jahn, working on the library was a welcome change of pace.

“This library is actually much more interesting than doing another office building,” Jahn said. “It’s a special place.”

Jahn described life inside the dome as “probably the closest you can be to the outside . . . studying would be a pleasure.”

Sunlight pours into every inch of the above-ground portion of the library. Fourteen silver pillars around the reading room regulate temperature and ambient light. By 11 a.m. Monday, nearly every seat was filled.

“Being on the inside I have to say I’m more wowed than I was on the outside,” said Alexander Kwako, 26, a post-baccalaureate biology student.

While the library lacks the familiar book stacks, “this facility in an indirect way celebrates browsing,” Nadler said. Books not traditionally found through browsing will be moved to the Mansueto, freeing up more space in the Regenstein’s stacks, she said.

Joe Mansueto, founder of Morningstar Inc., and his wife, Rika, both attended the U. of C. The couple gave $25 million for the library that bears their name.

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