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ArticlesSummer 2010

A Tradition of Innovation

Central Library ahead of trends when opened in 1941

Despite the difficult economic times in which the 1941 library was planned and built, the planners worked hard to make the building beautiful and functional. The exterior was built in a collegiate gothic style, but the real attention was focused on the interior with the goal of creating the perfect learning environment. Most of the reading rooms, including the James H. Kirkland Reference Room shown above, had woodwork fashioned

W­­­­­­­­­hen Vanderbilt’s Central Library opened in 1941, it was progressive in concept and design. The concept—bringing together the resources of Vanderbilt, George Peabody College for Teachers and Scarritt College to create a facility for all three institutions—created a library far better than each could do alone. The design was the model of modernity, with air conditioning, just-introduced fluorescent lighting and the latest in automation—vacuum tubes and a book conveyor system.

The student body was as proud of the new library as was the rest of the university community.

“The library was a very important part of my experience at Vanderbilt,” said Dr. Robert H. Moore, BA’47, MD’51. “I was a member of the Writers Group as an undergraduate and we met in the library. When I was in medical school, we didn’t have the Internet, of course, and we would go over to the library to look up items in the Index Medicus (a comprehensive index of medical scientific journal articles) and then we would look up the appropriate journal so we could read the article.”

Joe “Tiger Joe” Thompson, BA’41, ignored the hot July and August weather that year and volunteered with other classmates to tote books from the old library in Kirkland Hall to the new facility.

Frederick Kuhlman, Vanderbilt director of libraries for 24 years, was the facility’s primary designer. He visited more than 20 university libraries to gather ideas. The library building that Kuhlman envisioned has changed little since its opening nearly 70 years ago, while the information world has evolved beyond what he could then comprehend. The ongoing renovations will take the library into the next generation.

The circulation desk, above, was the main feature of the library lobby and also home to the hundreds of card catalog drawers lining the walls.

In the Graduate Reading Room located in the stacks on the third floor of the library, grad students, many of them in the military, were each assigned a numbered desk for the academic year. The desks were designed with slanted tops and special materials to facilitate studying.

The Central Library in 1941 featured all the newest offerings—fluorescent lights, air conditioning, vacuum tubes and book conveyor belts.


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