Sterling Library plans for its second century, with insights from library users

  • High-ceilinged cathedral-like space with limestone walls and columns and stained glass windows  above archways through which seating and study areas can be seen.
    Sterling Library nave
May 6, 2022

Throughout its ninety years, Sterling Memorial Library has continually adapted to the changing needs of each generation of students, faculty, and staff. With an eye toward the library’s centennial in 2031, Yale Library once again is considering the future—and will be involving library users in the planning process.

Tradition and Innovation

From the start, in 1931, architect James Gamble Rogers sought to meet the needs of that era’s scholars and patrons and also to guarantee the building’s long future. Underneath the collegiate gothic revival stone, metal work, stained glass windows, and buttressed ceilings, he installed what were then state-of-the-art technologies, including steel framing, heating and cooling systems, and a pneumatic tube system. 

In the past decade, many spaces within Sterling have been renovated and reconfigured in response  to emerging trends in higher education and at Yale, including the University’s growing emphasis on teaching with special collections, the rising importance of digital humanities, and the establishment of the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, which moved into Sterling in 2017, to provide new forms of support for faculty and students.

“We’ve seen tremendous positive evolution of large parts of the library,” said Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian. “Now we want to step back and look at the building holistically to ensure that it will continue to provide the best possible support for teaching, learning, research, and community at Yale into its second century and beyond. The first step in our work is to better understand how students, faculty, and staff are using the building now, and what kinds of spaces and services they might like to see in the future.”   

Other important milestones in the history of Sterling Library include:

  • Hanke Exhibition Gallery (2022). The new gallery advances the University’s commitment to object-based learning with a museum-quality space suitable for display of materials from across Yale Library’s vast collections. The gallery’s first exhibition “Points of Contact, Points of View” illuminates the process of teaching with primary source materials. Read Celebrating the new Hanke Exhibition Gallery in Sterling Memorial Library.
  • Yale Film Archive (2021). The seventh floor of Sterling, which once held the Yale Library map collection (now housed in the Beinecke Library), became the new home of the Yale Film Archive, with a 3,200-square-foot space with a twenty-seat screening room, viewing booths, and a film preservation suite. The archive’s space and collections complement and support academic programming in the newly renovated Humanities Quadrangle on York Street. Read Yale Film Archive has a new home at the heart of campus.
  • Franke Family Digital Humanities Laboratory (2018). The venerable, first-floor reading room, once known as the Reserve Reading Room and later as the Periodical Reading Room, was transformed into a state-of-the-heart learning environment for digital humanities. The room offers advanced computing capabilities, specialized tools and technologies, and flexible workspaces for work on projects combining the tools and techniques of data analysis and computation with the arts and humanities. Read New Home for Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab opens in Sterling Library.
  • Gates Classroom (2018). As part of a larger renovation of the department of Manuscripts and Archives that also included the main reading room, the former Grand Exhibition Room—originally designed to house the library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible (now at the Beinecke Library)—was converted into a classroom for teaching with special collections materials. Read: History Comes Alive at Renovated Manuscripts and Archives Department.
  • Sterling Nave (2014). In an addition to installing modern mechanical systems and fully restoring one of Yale’s most frequently visited public spaces, the  eighteen-month project replaced rows of physical card catalogues—made obsolete by new technology—with new seating and work spaces for students. Read: Following a spectacular renovation, a treasured Yale landmark reopens to the public.
  • Gilmore Music Library (1998). To accommodate its fast-growing collections, the music library, housed in Sprague Memorial Hall since 1917, relocated to Sterling in 1998. Today it offers large study rooms, computer workstations, self-service printing and scanning equipment, piano rooms, seminar rooms, and state-of-the-art audiovisual systems. The main reading room is a three-story-high, enclosed courtyard, formerly the open Light Court, now covered with an arching roof that diffuses natural light onto the student work spaces below.

Behind Sterling’s original, gothic-style exterior, much has changed—and is changing—within the library’s walls. The 2031 centennial project is a logical continuation of the architect’s vision of the library as “the heart of the University.” As Nancy Better ’84, chair of the University Library Council, expressed in an interview with YaleNews in 2021, “A continual cycle of renovation is necessary to keep Sterling relevant to each generation of students, scholars, and faculty.”

View an online exhibit on the architectural history of Sterling.

—By Deborah Cannarella

Photo by Bob Handelman