Historic building to house Columbia’s futuristic library

By Alexandra Kukulka

As students settle into their new dorms and academic departments, Columbia’s library is entering the planning phase of a new project.

The college purchased the Johnson Publishing Co. building, 820 S. Michigan Ave., for $4.75 million in November 2010, creating space for a new “technological” library. This addition, expected to open in fall 2015, will geographically connect the campus and serve as a meeting ground for students.

The current library, located in the South Campus Building, 624 S. Michigan Ave., is a historic structure that was not built to house a library, according to Alicia Berg, vice president of Campus Environment.  The Johnson Publishing Co. building is not meant for a library in its current state either, but according to Berg, the college will be able to work around the building’s structural issues while keeping its historic charm.

“The building wasn’t designed to handle a library,” Berg said. “It was designed for an office building, and books are heavy. That is the issue.”

Berg said the building will feature a multi-story Automated Retrieval System in lieu of stacks to house the library’s holdings.

The system, invented 20 years ago to mechanize industrial storage systems, takes up one-ninth the amount of space as conventional shelving, said Library Dean Jan Chindlund.

Students will not search for books on shelves but will instead use a digital catalogue, Chindlund said.

“In a virtual environment, when you ‘walk up to the shelf,’ you are seeing everything that is supposed to be there. Some of these [items] may be checked out, but at least [students will] know they exist,” she said.

According to Todd Hunter, an account executive for Dermatic, an ARS manufacturer, the system uses vertical and horizontal robotic cranes to simultaneously locate books, which are housed in rows of bins.

Hunter said the system can be adapted to fit specific buildings. It employs a series of mechanized units that are 13 feet wide and between 15 and 50 feet tall, he said.

“[Students] will use normal online circulation software to do the research to search for a volume,” Hunter said. “The request comes to the [ARS], and the correct bin in that volume is retrieved…and presented to the library staff.”

According to Berg, the “Ebony” and “Jet” signs signifying the company’s famed magazines will still be displayed over the building to honor the Johnson legacy. The college is in the process of finalizing an agreement with the company to preserve the art and décor of the lobby and the 11th floor, where John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Co., had his office.

“As a diverse arts and media school, we were very attracted to the history of the [Johnson Publishing Co.] building [as] a center of African-American media in the country,” Berg said.

The space allocation of the new library has yet to be determined, but Berg said the vacated library’s space will be up for grabs when certain departments start to expand as part of prioritization.

The library staff will send out surveys to students and faculty, as was done in fall 2010, to identify the needs and preferences of both groups, Chindlund said. They are also considering sending surveys prospective students, she added.

A fundraising campaign, The Johnson Legacy Project, has been launched to raise money for the library, scholarships in the name of John and Eunice Johnson and conversion of the 11th floor office into a museum, according to Eric Winston, vice president of Institutional Advancement.

Since the campaign started in January, $300,000 has been raised for scholarships, but no money has  been raised for the library.

Winston said the goal is to raise between $15 million and $20 million.

Winston believes the library will start to receive donations once the campaign reaches out to  preservationists.

Chindlund hopes the new library will become a destination for students and faculty to come and learn because there will be four classrooms instead of one, as in the current library.

“[The new library] will create a place where students can come to study in a building that means so much to African-American media history,” Berg said.