University Library replaced Deering Library, opened in 1933. By 1970, Deering became too cramped to handle the post-war enrollment boom and too antiquated in design to handle new technologies. Despite its small size and closed stack system, Deering possess impressive architectural details. Watch more from Janet Olson, assistant university archivist and librarian, and Cara List, head of the art library.
When Betty Olivera was a student at Northwestern in the mid-1970s, University Library was an indispensable resource. The building served as the center of information and learning – and a social hub. At 9 p.m. every day, students would head to one of the lounges. Now a lawyer in Chicago, Olivera fondly recalls the scene, describing it as “like a mixer over coffee.” When I tell her I’m shocked to hear about this library social hour, she’s equally shocked to hear it doesn’t happen anymore. Everyone went there, she says, to see and be seen, exchange plans for the night or commiserate about long evenings ahead.
The University Library – colloquially known as “Main” – opened in 1970 to great fanfare. Designed by Walter Netsch, a well-known architect at the Chicago firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the $12 million building landed a spread in that year’s July issue of Architectural Record. The feature touted the organized arrangement of stacks, separated towers and seating for thousands of students – an innovation at the time. Netsch divided the three towers roughly by discipline: social sciences in the north stack, history in the east and humanities in the south.
This January, the library will celebrate its 49th birthday. At nearly half a century old, the building’s age shows. Despite the time and care that went into the design, Main is not easy, beautiful or seamless. Deriding the hulking, brutalist structure is sport among students and faculty. The hundreds of bentwood study carrels in the towers offer lots of space, but the geometric repetition of the floor plan makes the desks impersonal. The building offers views of the lake in the distance, but for the most part, through only tall, narrow slivers of windows. And the exterior? My friend Ridley aptly labels it “a deconstructed Rubik’s cube on stilts.” Let’s just say, concrete was all the rage when the building opened, the same year the Beatles broke up.
As an art history major, I remain consistently fascinated by the library and the passion it inspires. So much of my education requires looking at the perfect finished product – the painting an artist toiled over for years, the building that spurred a revolution in how people interact with space – that it’s somehow refreshing to look at something designed by someone like the MIT-educated Netsch, a model student of architecture, who still managed to create something that people hate.
At the same time, I pity this concrete relic of the past. The building-lover in me can’t bear to hate a structure so meticulously and impeccably designed. It baffles me that Netsch’s planning and foresight failed. Almost 50 years later, time renders the library’s interior features obsolete. No need now for a music listening center – or for an enormous area for the card catalog, unceremoniously carted off in 1997. The first floor entryway where it once sat morphed into a space awkwardly filled with fluorescent lights and dozens of computers.
As a senior at Northwestern in 2018, I access nearly all of my coursework anywhere there is an internet connection – something I never fully appreciated until my conversation with Olivera. Once, she tells me, she took a course that required nearly 200 pages of reading per class. A lot of it consisted of articles on reserve at the library, so she remained tethered to the poor gray giant.
Sometimes the best-intentioned designs do not stand the test of time, as all that remains today is a shell of the building’s former function. But even in the ‘70s, Olivera says, people disliked the building. They only used it every day because they had no choice, learning and growing as the library remained stuck in the past. Generations of students have suffered and will continue to suffer for years to come, and with the current budget crisis, a remodel is nowhere in sight.