At North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library, “whoosh” replaces “shhh” as robots zip along the state-of-the-art building’s five-story trove of tomes.
When you talk about libraries, you begin with books, right?
So, meet the bookBot, which takes most of the 1.5 million books in the James B. Hunt Jr. Library in west Raleigh — the Jetsons-modern building on the main oval of North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus — and buries them. It stuffs the books into metal boxes and stacks those boxes 50 feet high down vast, narrow aisles you can’t get to. Think of the enormous warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’ll have the idea. If you want the books, you ask a robot to get them for you.
Yes, that’s correct: In a library that opened in January 2013 and cost the state $115 million or thereabouts (depending on what else you include in the total), you can’t walk among most of the books. No languorous meanders among the stacks for you at the Hunt; no trailing your finger along bindings like a kid rattling a stick along a picket fence. No, you poke your fingers at a flat-screen, typing keywords and swiping your way through a browsing application. And then you watch through enormous glass windows while the bookBot, a robotic book picker with only a dozen or so colleagues in North America, zips up and down a bright yellow vertical girder, lights flashing. It zooms silently to the bin that holds your book, pulls it out, and swoops back to a counter, where a library worker picks out your book. The bookBot glides back to the matrix and replaces the bin, and you have your book within five minutes. You don’t prowl the stacks. Robots prowl the stacks.
I’ll wait a moment while the book people among us recover from their fainting spells. Because — aren’t the stacks what it’s all about? A library is a big rectangular building full of books. Books. Library. They’re kind of the same thing, right?
“Think again,” says the Hunt. In fact, “think again” might be the building’s motto. The university bills it as “the best learning and collaborative space in the country,” and the 11,000 or so people who have arranged to tour the building in its first year have not disagreed. Spend an hour in the library, and by the time you leave you’ll have new thoughts about books, buildings, and libraries themselves.
You’ll loiter awhile in a three-story reading room, overlooked by the Balcony Lounge two floors above. You’ll sit in a variety of chairs the likes of which you’re unlikely to encounter outside a design museum; you’ll have your pick of about a hundred private study rooms; and all the while you’ll be treated to long vistas of Lake Raleigh, of the oval, of the campus — of the outside, coming inside to be with you. The Hunt, embracing its landscape, the history of libraries, and the very meaning of information, takes you somewhere you have never been. Oh, yeah — and you can also sit in a quiet study room surrounded by books, which you can pick up and read all by yourself.
The five-story library is an irregular polygon with facades entirely of glass and metal — on a campus absolutely dominated by brick buildings with regular shapes. “I didn’t want a typical library building,” says NCSU Libraries Director Susan Nutter, who worked for years to bring the library into being. “We wanted an iconic building, that says ‘This is N.C. State now.’ I didn’t want bricks and rectangles.”
The library design, which has already been written about in everything from Architect to American Libraries to The Paris Review, resulted from constant discussion with students and faculty. “Not so much from what they asked for as from the way they started expressing themselves, started to think,” says Maurice York, NCSU Libraries head of information technology. They didn’t ask for specific things — but they asked for a building that would keep changing, keep growing, and would give them a chance to change and grow with it, to keep up with technology. The students — and the designers — know that predicting technological change is impossible.
“But we can tell you it’s going to change very rapidly,” York says. So a goal emerged: Design a building that would provide an armature for an ever-changing gallery of technological systems and organs that help students get what they need. “We’re treating technology not as, ‘Let’s put it in place and here’s what it does, so use it appropriately for that,’ ” York says, laughing. “But, in the genuine sense of research: We know this is the right stuff, we know it’s what drives the modern world, but the question for a research university promoting innovation and design and technology, the question is, what can we do with these tools? How can we have them push our understandings of science, and politics, and literature and all that?”
The people to figure that out will be the students.
Go behind the scenes with writer Scott Huler.
Which, whether you’re a book person or not, kind of sounds … right. That makes sense, right? The way we store, share, and use information is changing so rapidly and so unpredictably that we surprise each other and ourselves constantly. Even bookish types are all learning to use — and appreciate — Kindles or Nooks or whatever other book-reading technology we have. And does anybody even remember that when people first started talking about the Internet in the mid-’90s, an awful lot of other people rolled their eyes? So designing an information building to be, above all, responsive, kind of makes sense. And isn’t letting the students be the ones to figure things out the entire point of a university?
Unusual shape; a love of and respect for technology; and a willingness to let the students “try to break it for a while,” in York’s words. You’re starting to get a sense of the Hunt, though we haven’t even gotten to the chairs yet, or the Creativity Studio with moveable walls where you can be on the bridge of an aircraft carrier or doing astronomy at Stonehenge or hanging around a London churchyard in 1622 listening to John Donne speak.
You may still be hung up on those closed stacks and the bookBot. But — even for those who love books, who love their smell and their gilt lettering and their calfskin bindings: Did you hear? Robots go and get your books for you. You get to watch through an enormous window — a window large enough, in fact, that it required the largest pieces of glass you can have manufactured in North America. Robots behind glass! Zooming around at your command! There’s even a button you can press to get a demonstration if nobody happens to be requesting books when you’re watching.
That is, the bookBot isn’t hidden — it’s not some shameful secret the library tries not to remind you of. If you come in on the library’s first floor — ground level on the building’s west side; on the east, on the Oval, the doors open on the second floor — the bookBot is the first thing you see when you come in. Huge windows, a bookBot picker in every row of the towering stacks, whooshing around. It’s your introduction to the building, yet before the Hunt, outside of library technical staff, almost nobody had ever seen a bookBot.
“Everybody will now,” says Susan Nutter, recalling the other bookBots the library planners visited when considering the technology. “Everywhere we went, they were hidden
underground. We would have to go back into some tiny space, or there would be one little porthole. But we just loved it.”
So putting the bookBot front and center was a conscious decision, says NCSU Libraries Director of Communication Strategy David Hiscoe. “It struck us as kind of non-N.C. State that they would take this and hide it.” So they did the opposite, and the viewing area in front of those vast glass windows — called Robot Alley — is already one of the library’s most popular spots.
In fact, even the bookBot itself was a second thought — the building saying “think again” before it was even built. Designers originally expected the building to have open stacks, but those endless interviews with students and faculty had made clear: The students and faculty wanted places where they could meet, collaborate, talk, discuss — even eat and drink. “One of the things students love is to go around a corner and discover something totally different,” says Nutter.
The first design included open stacks, but it turned out that was about all it could include: “We started doing programmatic design, and we were losing square footage,” says York. “And we started to say, wait a minute, there’s nothing in this building but stacks.”
It soon became evident that the building would have room either for book stacks or for people, but not both. Because the UNC system requires each campus to have library seating for 20 percent of its students, the Hunt’s design team easily decided on the kind of 21st-century building that would provide the technology and collaboration space the students and faculty said they wanted. Which meant most of the books would have to be stored in bins, where they’re grouped by size, rather than by subject, maximizing storage volume. Books so stored take up only a ninth of the space of open stacks. With the square footage thus cleared, from Robot Alley on, the Hunt is a melange of different spaces. The library’s users, that is, were willing to trade the serendipity of finding unexpected books while wandering the stacks for a different kind of serendipity — they wanted the serendipity of stumbling across each other while wandering the building.
They got it. Architect Craig Dykers of the international firm SnØhetta says the building is specifically designed for activity: “The Hunt Library is all about movement as much as sitting. Libraries in the past have been mostly about sitting.” The recent past, anyway. Dykers, along with SnØhetta, designed the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the reestablishment of the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt, which opened in 2002. As he thought about libraries, though, Dykers realized: “You say house, people will draw a recognizable little thing; you say museum, they usually draw a pediment portico. Bank, town hall; people have an image. But you say library, and nobody really knows what it looks like. But one thing for sure about libraries: They’ve always involved the interactions with people in one way or another.” Did you hear? He didn’t say books. He said people.
So Dykers and SnØhetta, working on those marching orders from N.C. State’s faculty and students, designed a library all about people easily flowing from one space to another, mixing and interacting.
From those first-floor bookBot windows, you climb a yellow stair to the main floor, which houses a large three-story reading area, its wall of windows turned into sculpture by metal fins that limit the amount of sunlight in the room and render the green and blue carpets a daily kinetic artwork. Follow another yellow stair, and you come to learning commons and reading lounges on the third and fourth floors, some looking over the main one dotted with native plants and even sculpture, called the Rain Garden Reading Lounge for the sustainable rainwater facility it overlooks. Everywhere you look are small rooms for collaboration, for joint study. Larger rooms function in specialized capacities, like the teaching and visualization room, with its 270-degree immersion projection onto three walls and Hollywood-quality speakers, lighting, and computing power. That’s where N.C. State professor John Wall’s Virtual Paul’s Cross Project used computers to simulate a sermon preached by John Donne in 1622. “I have a friend who is the definition of a Luddite,” York laughs. “When he asks me what we do at the library, I tell him we helped John Donne make the front page of the local paper for the first time in 400 years.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah. That’s why we’re doing this.’ ”
The third floor holds a Game Lab with a 20-by-5-foot display covered with Christie MicroTiles that makes the biggest home theater screen look like an iPhone, and the fourth floor holds a creativity studio, a “white box” with moveable walls that can be turned into almost any environment its users desire — including the bridge of a ship used by N.C. State ROTC for training. And connecting every level are yellow stairs, providing a color cue that says, “This way to something else!” The stairs are often Roman stairs — with one side of the staircase standard width, the other side double-width, with cushions — exactly right for turning a serendipitous meeting into a brief, comfortable sit-down.
And for a place about walking, the designers have taken sitting as seriously as it can be taken. There are some 80-plus different types of chairs in the library, and almost everywhere you sit, you have views out the building’s broad windows.
And, says York, observers love the library’s astonishing top-end technology, but the building’s greatest services are its most mundane systems: The central computing power; the memory that students can check out virtually; and the fact that all its systems — including its shelf-browsing system — are available 24 hours online. And even more simply: “Can I plug in my laptop? Can I get my display on that screen? Can I get into a media production lab and build a multitrack audio thing?” The answer is — always — yes. “We spent an enormous amount of time on those much smaller and much more daily, useful technologies,” says York.
Many tables are wired, both for electricity and data. Some tables have glass tops — you can write on them with whiteboard markers! Same with the walls in the study rooms. N.C. State asked for a library that, at its core, in its every facet, reached out to serve its students. That’s what it got.
Symphony of Chairs by Ryan Shelley. See more of his work here.
Everybody agrees the library is working. Students rave about the group-study rooms, where they can work on presentations with screens, writing on walls, using the tools the library tosses at them. Faculty members use the capabilities for research and experimentation, staff to communicate. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of books available to touch. In three different areas — two circular bookshelves in the Rain Garden Reading Lounge, shelves on the fifth-floor reading room, and on shelf-covered walls on the second-floor quiet reading room, some 40,000 of the most recent, heavily used, and classic engineering and textile texts are out on shelves. Just like a library. A library, that is, where you can design a spaceship, attend a 400-year-old sermon, and write on the walls.
“The glass tabletops,” says Dykers. “You can write on almost all the surfaces! That’s exactly the opposite of libraries of the past. You’d get your fingers slapped if you did anything like that.” The Hunt, in fact, is in almost all ways the opposite of libraries of the past. They were about stacks of books; at the Hunt, only robots roam most of the stacks. Old libraries are about “shhh!” — the Hunt is about media and talking and the volume of game design. Old libraries are about sitting. The Hunt — well, Dykers talks about the Skyline Reading Room and terrace, those fifth-floor spaces with comfortable chairs, outside tables, and breathtaking views of the trees and Lake Raleigh. “People say they love that room,” Dykers says. “And they’ve never once ridden the elevator. And what other building can you say that about?”
York defines success like this: A year in, as the building finishes its technological rollout, he calls contractors to change or adjust systems. “We say we’re going to work with this system, adapt this code, and they look at me and say, ‘98 percent of our customers never want to touch any of this stuff again.’
“That’s how I know we’re succeeding. If we’re pushing the industry to do things it never does, to solve problems they never have to solve, that’s how I know we’re in the right spot with what we’re doing.”
Nutter knows her persistence and attention to detail has paid off just by looking around. If she looks hard enough, she knows she’ll find a single brick hidden somewhere in the library, a gift from the builders meant as a joke about her harping against them. She hasn’t found it and doesn’t much care whether she does. She begins to talk about it, but she stops — suddenly her office is filled with muffled music. One floor below, in the teaching and visualization lab, someone is creating something. She shrugs, holds up her hands, smiling broadly: “You see?”
York says of the library, “We put our trust in the students. Just take this and make something out of it. Just do something awesome.”
The students should; after all, it’s their turn.
1070 Partners Way
Raleigh, N.C. 27606
The Hunt Library is open 24 hours, Monday-Thursday, and closes at 10 p.m. Friday; Saturday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-midnight.
Scott Huler is the author of six books, but he doesn’t mind whether you read them in print, online, or on a tablet, as long as you read them. Click here to read more of his work.