Skip to main content

Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.). Library. Planning Committee



Toward the end of the 1950's, Northwestern University had outgrown the space and structure of Deering Library, which had been built in 1933 as a closed-stacks library with a capacity of 500,000 volumes.  An increase in enrollment, expanding collections, and changing research habits made creating an additional library building a necessity.  By the early 1960s, Deering held over a million volumes and, while the stacks had been opened to browsing in 1951, the layout of the building no longer met the needs of its users.  At the request of President J. Roscoe Miller, an Ad Hoc University Library Planning Committee was established on May 10, 1961 to begin planning a proposed addition to Deering Library.  The committee was composed of Professor of History Clarence Ver Steeg, Chairman; Professor of English Richard Ellman; Assistant Librarian David Jolly; University Librarian Jens Nyholm; Director of Plant Properties John Sanderson; Professor of Economics Robert Strotz; and Graduate School Dean Moody Prior.

Through the active leadership of Chairman Ver Steeg, who spent many years working diligently on this project, much was accomplished in relatively short time.  The Planning Committee researched other college and university library projects; made several site visits; and interviewed departments, faculty, staff, and students.  Much of the final library plan was developed through this series of interviews with the community members who would be using the building.  With this data, the committee was able to make decisions about collection development, access, and work spaces.  Information was gathered on elements such as use of journals, reserve materials, typing room needs, and smoking areas, but essentially the question was how the new library could best support scholarship at that time and in the coming years.  Though there were differing opinions and philosophies, the committee was able to reach consensus on the main issues and forged a vision of what the new library would entail.

In addition to periodic and yearly progress reports, the Planning Committee produced a formal document on June 22, 1962 synopsizing its work and decisions.  After presenting the report to President Miller for his acceptance, the plan was then approved by the University's Board of Trustees and the project moved into a new phase. The Planning Committee was reconstituted as the Library Building Committee with the same membership on July 12, 1962, once the Administration had approved the plan and the architects had been asked to draw up preliminary designs.  Walter Netsch of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), while not an official member of the committee, was the lead architect and attended many of the meetings.  Mr. Netsch's assistant, Thomas Houha, was also a regular attendee.

Form and function went hand-in-hand as the shape of the new library developed.  Close contact and cooperation between the committee and the architects informed the process of creating both the physical building and its intended use and functional structure.  The eventual design consisted of three semi-independent, circular towers envisioned by Walter Netsch along the guidelines of what would become his "Field Theory" approach to architecture.  Among other duties, the Building Committee also helped manage the ongoing construction and contractors, made decisions about interior design, developed tour and orientation materials, and provided input for press releases.

The overarching question faced by the Committee was: what is a university library?  The first of the main issues under scrutiny was balancing the demands of undergraduate versus graduate students.  Northwestern chose the somewhat iconoclastic route of creating an "integrated" new library in which both student groups would share equal access to the space and collections.  They attempted to balance the needs of these groups by creating the second focus of the committee, in consort with respective academic departments, that they called "core" collections.  These were non-circulating copies of the central and most used and influential works in a given discipline.  A third focus was the layout of the stacks and Northwestern again bucked tradition going with a radial design for the bookshelves.  The theory was that having books arranged in radiating shelves would allow a reader/researcher more direct visual access to the collection, seeing "120,000 volumes" simultaneously.  A fourth main theme was the uniqueness of the building itself.  By choosing an avant-garde design, Northwestern was making a statement to the public and the academic community.  It was supposed to represent the forward thinking of the University, signal an embrace of contemporary scholarship, and set the stage for future additions to Northwestern's new Lakefill campus.

The library opened to the public on January 19, 1970 and was dedicated officially on October 21 of the same year.  It is unclear as to when exactly that the Library Building Committee ended its duties; there remained some unfinished work on both interior spaces and the building's information retrieval systems.  At some point in its early use, though, control over decisions reverted back to the standing Faculty Library Committee.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Records of the University Library Planning Committee Chairman, Clarence Ver Steeg

Identifier: 4/5/9
Abstract This collection documents the activity of the committee established to plan and oversee construction of Northwestern University's University Library building (completed in 1970), viewed through the lens of Clarence Ver Steeg, who chaired the committte for over a decade. The Planning/Building Committee held regular, monthly meetings in addition to engaging in ongoing, sub-committee duties, site visits, and research. The collection is centered around the working files of the committee,...
Dates: 1951 - 2001; Other: Majority of material found within 1961 - 1970; Other: Date acquired: 02/08/1984