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Alderman renovation plans to be presented to Board of Visitors

The renovation aims to address both structural and usability issues with the building

If approved, Alderman Library will undergo significant structural and experience-based renovations.
If approved, Alderman Library will undergo significant structural and experience-based renovations.

After two years of preliminary planning, the renovation of Alderman Library is set to reach a critical milestone this summer. On June 7, the Board of Visitors Buildings & Grounds Committee will have the chance to review schematic design plans developed by HBRA, the architecture firm for the project.

This initial review sets the stage for a final design approval of the $160 million project in September. Construction on the project is slated to begin in 2020. 

Built in 1938, Alderman currently faces issues with architectural soundness and fire safety. The building has not been renovated since 1987, when an air conditioning system was added. 

The “Old Stacks” area of the library — the section of books closest to the library’s main entrance —  has an “extremely problematic” zero-hour fire-resistive rating, according to a 2007 Library Planning and Assessment Study conducted by the Office of the Architect. Additionally, Alderman is required to have two accessible exits on every floor, but currently has none on the third or fifth floor. 

Improvements to these internal structural issues will likely require the complete or partial demolition of Old and New Stacks during construction. Because the bookshelves in Old Stacks are used as building support, they cannot be rearranged without the demolition of the entire area. Similarly, remedying electrical wiring and safety problems in the New Stacks area is also difficult to do while maintaining the existing structure, according to University Librarian John Unsworth in a February interview with UVA Today.

If the project is approved and funds are allocated, some of Alderman’s over two million volumes could be relocated to Ivy Stacks, a facility located over a mile west of Central Grounds. An Ivy Stacks expansion project has been in progress since fall 2017 and is set to double the capacity of the facility to about 5 million volumes.

Beyond structural and safety issues, the renovation aims to improve study spaces, particularly for collaborative work and reorganize the way books and manuscripts are housed, according to the Planning and Assessment Study. 

In November 2017, HBRA was selected as the project architect. The firm has worked on libraries at various universities, such as Yale University and Northwestern. They’ve been collaborating with the Alderman Renovation Project Working Group, a team comprised of representatives from the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, University Library and Office of the Architect. 

“The four of us are at every meeting to make sure we’re getting a real cross section of who the library serves,” said Kate Meyer, a senior project manager with Facilities Management and Construction. 

Since November, HBRA and the renovation project committee have hosted eight focus groups to gauge student and faculty opinion. 

One of the main points of contention to emerge from these sessions has to do with the volume of books housed on-site in the library. Currently, architects and project committee members hope to distribute smaller collections throughout the building and implement compact shelving, which allows for high-density, mobile book storage which can be reoriented based on user need. 

The planned decrease in shelf space prompted a petition managed by John Bugbee, a Ph.D. candidate in religious studies, which has garnered 307 signatures to date. Bugbee argues that “a genuinely improved Alderman ought to include more shelf space for books, kept on-site in open, easily browsable settings.” 

In response to the petition, Unsworth asserted the practical benefits of a less concentrated collection. 

“The maximalist collections position is ideological rather than pragmatic in nature, and while I generally subscribe to this ideology, I am faced with pragmatic decisions that must be made,” Unsworth said in a comment to Bugbee’s petition.

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Unsworth reiterated the disagreement over shelf-space, saying it will not be a major issue in the long term.

“I don’t think there are any real philosophical differences between those planning this project and those planning to use the library in the future,” he said. “We agree that a humanities and social science library should have substantially and thoughtfully selected print collections …  arranged for scholarly use.” 

Taking these issues into consideration, HBRA architects are set to present their schematic design to the Board of Visitors in June. But before they do, the project must undergo a period of evaluation based on technical details and budgeting.

“It goes to our building code officials, gets sent around to tradesmen … we’ll get cost estimates and we’ll look for ways to save money,” Meyer said. “That way when we send it to the board we have to be certain we’re sending them a project that is on budget and within our resources, so they don’t look at a gold-plated cup and say ‘we love it’ and then we hand them pewter later.” 

If the schematic design is approved in June, the project will move forward into preliminary design. In October, the renovation plans will be sent to Richmond for a technical review and approval by the General Assembly in their spring 2019 term. 

“At that point back here in Charlottesville there’s nothing for us to do but wait for them to tell us whether they’re going to approve it,” Meyer said. 

If the General Assembly approves the plan and agrees to provide the requested $160 million, the University would receive the funding in the summer of 2019 and then be able to move forward with construction. 

Though Meyer’s main focus is keeping the project on schedule, like many she also feels a personal connection to the renovation. 

“I grew up in Charlottesville and I went to U.Va. and I’ve been in Alderman my whole life, so for me, it’s almost like renovating the Rotunda,” Meyer said. “For me, Alderman is right up there with the whole core of who we are.”