Inside the Beinecke Library renovation: Q&A with director Edwin Schroeder

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library closed in May for a renovation that will overhaul the building’s mechanical systems and refurbish its iconic architectural features: the translucent marble, the six-story glass stack tower, and the sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi.

The renovation project has reached its midway point. The library, which is scheduled to reopen in September, has continued to provide scholars and students access to its collections during the renovation via a temporary reading room and classroom at Sterling Memorial Library.

Edwin C. Schroeder, director of the Beinecke Library, recently spoke with YaleNews about the renovation’s progress and his plans for the building’s reopening.      

You’re about halfway through the renovation. How is it going?

People often ask me if we’re on time, and my short answer is, “Yes, we are always on time.” We’re halfway through the project at this point. We’re ahead of schedule in some aspects of the project, such as installing the new HVAC system. Other aspects are slightly behind, but we’ve built enough cushion into our construction schedule to address any surprises. Fortunately, we haven’t had any major surprises — no instances where they’ve opened up a wall and said, “Oh no, what happened here?”

We’re on time to finish the heavy construction in early June. At that point we’ll begin going through punch lists and installing furniture. Beginning Aug. 1, we will close the temporary reading room and classroom to give staff a chance to move back into the building and to return collections and artwork that were moved offsite for the renovation. We’ll reopen to the public on Sept. 1.

Edwin C. Schroeder, director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript LibraryWhat parts of the building are being renovated?

It is a comprehensive renovation that includes replacing the library’s mechanical systems: fire suppression, HVAC, electric, plumbing. It is also an opportunity to reprogram portions of the library to reflect the increased interest in teaching with the collections at the Beinecke.

Over the last 10 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of classes being taught at the Beinecke.  After we added the first two classrooms 15 years ago, the library hosted about 100 classes per year. Last academic year, about 600 classes visited the Beinecke, ranging from undergraduate freshman seminars to graduate-level intensive classes working with materials such as medieval manuscripts and papyrus. Part of the renovation is to expand the Beinecke’s teaching space to allow us to host more classes and give us more flexibility to host conferences and symposiums.

You’ve worked at the Beinecke for more than 25 years. What’s it been like to see it overhauled?

Every two weeks I do a walkthrough with the facilities staff, and every two weeks I’m surprised by a different part of the building that I realized I’ve never seen before — walls coming down, ductwork being moved to different places. On the most recent visits, there’s been scaffolding in the cube area so they can clean and repair the marble and the bronze. The look of the building completely changes. It is a stunning and very different view. It’s exciting because it reflects that the library is changing as the needs of the library changes and that we will meet those needs.

How has the library managed to continue to provide access to its collections during the renovation?

Our staff has done a very good job of providing access to the collections. We’ve done it in two ways. The Yale University Library was very generous in providing us space to create a temporary reading room in Sterling Memorial Library where we can host 20 to 25 readers at one time. They have access to nearly all of the collections housed in the library building or at the Yale Library’s offsite shelving facility in Hamden.

At the same time, we were able to open a temporary classroom in Sterling Library to maintain some level of teaching during the 15-month building closure. The teaching is not on the same scale as when our building is open, but we can host small classes to look at collection material.

Was the Beinecke’s building completely cleared of books and manuscripts?

Due to the size of the collections and the complexity of moving material, we were not able to remove all of the books from the building during the renovation. We kept about a third of the collection in the basement and we’ve had to work around it. It allowed us to maintain access to this material. If we’d had to pack it up and ship it out we might not have been able to provide access to students and scholars during the closure.

We have staff going into the stacks on a daily basis. Every afternoon a group of staff members put on their hardhats and roll their book trucks to the Beinecke to retrieve material that readers have requested or shelve material that was used in the reading room or classroom. That’s worked out quite well. We’ve been able to provide access to the collections and keep the collections protected during construction as well.

One of the two new classrooms will function as a lab space. What options will that provide to classes?

One of the changes we’ve seen in teaching at the library over the years is a greater interest in handling the materials studying books as historical objects. The new classroom will feature a printing press and space for working with inks and typefaces. It will be a space for students to handle not only books and maps, but also the tools and materials that go into creating a book or a map.

You were recently appointed to a second five-year term as the Beinecke’s director. What are your goals for the next term?

The first goal is to finish the renovation on time. The second goal is to leverage what we’ve done with the renovation project. We’ve not only done work on the Beinecke itself, but we’ve created a 40,000-square-foot facility in New Haven’s Science Park for cataloging, digitizing, and preserving the collections. 

Also, we want to utilize the new classroom space to expand the teaching and education component of the library’s mission, not only hosting Yale undergraduate and graduate courses but also offering weeklong and multi-weeklong sessions during the summer for teachers, faculty, and graduate students that will allow them to immerse themselves in the collections. The other thing that we’re trying to build on is our belief in providing access to the collections through interactions with the public.

What are your plans for the reopening?

For the reopening this coming year we’re thinking about what it means to visit the Beinecke. This involves our exhibit program, and bringing more video and audio capability to our exhibit spaces, and our public programing of concerts, lecture, and readings, but we want to think about more thematically.

Next year is the 75th anniversary of the James Weldon Johnson Collection of African American Arts and Literature, and we’re doing an exhibit in the fall to mark that anniversary. We’ll follow it up with a full-building exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance, which will pull entirely from the Beinecke’s collections. This will allow us to focus on the Beinecke’s African American-related collection over a whole year. This will include the exhibits, but we’ll bring in poets, scholars, and students in the process. It’s a way to get students, faculty, and the public thinking about the library in a way they maybe haven’t in the past.