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Rearview Mirror: The Price Gilbert is Right

Now featuring books again! Whoa!

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The view from the top of renovated Crosland Tower.
u/coldFusionGuy on reddit because my picture had a weird glare on it.

The re-opening of Crosland Tower warrants a quick look into the history of libraries at Georgia Tech, as it is truly an odd little saga that got us from books without a library to a library without books.

One of my favorite little historical stories is that, after the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, cities from across the country and around the world sent books for the ruined city to rebuild its decimated collection of great works. Only problem is, the City on the Make didn’t even have a library before the fire. Nature’s experiment in unbridled industrialism left no room for the finer things, literature be [Duran Duran]ed. So they just threw the books into a water tank that survived the fire and took a couple decades to cobble together a permanent home for the charitable donation of books. The story of the Georgia Tech Library is remarkably similar.

The Georgia School of Technology came into being without a library. Allow me to quote myself:

“Tech Tower, originally the only academic building on campus, was built without a library. With a little finagling, [by Professor, later Institute President, Kenneth Matheson] some bookshelves were acquired to store a sad, motley collection of what little literature the school had. The new president had designs on something bigger. More like an actual building. Full of books. You know, like a library. So he started writing.

“Matheson contacted the most prolific philanthropist of the age, a bonafide steel magnate by the name of Andrew Carnegie. A man who had amassed immense wealth thanks to his wrangling of the American steel industry, Carnegie was looking for a way to make a more charitable legacy. Matheson asked him for a bold $20,000 dollars, quite a step up for a man who routinely got rejected when he asked the Tech trustees for $60 for the paltry interim library set up in Tech Tower while a professor. For his part, Carnegie ponied up the money, on the condition that the school provide an annual operating budget of $2,000.

“Just twenty months passed from the initial donation to the opening of the library building in November of 1907. The Carnegie Library, nestled next to Tech Tower, was Matheson’s baby for the next sixteen years of his presidency. After a concerned Columbia University professor donated a shipment of books for the mostly-empty library, Matheson was emboldened, asking nearly every major school on the Atlantic coast for whatever literature they could spare to stock the shelves of his new building. The biggest came from a school you may have heard of in Boston. No, not MIT, but Harvard. The Ivy League schools were the primary reason the tiny technology school had the vast majority of its library stocked. By no means was the library Matheson’s only accomplishment, but it certainly was his proudest, and he continued to fiercely advocate for its growth,” (Grant).

The situation had changed little a quarter of a century later. Marion Brittain, Matheson’s successor, lobbied hard to expand the semi-neglected library. A common mark of a well-regarded American place of higher education is to become a member of the American Association of Universities. And important part of this membership was the library. As noted in McMath’s Engineering the New South, “His concern for the library also reflects his emphasis on fundamentals — to in-depth training in mathematics and English.” Tech made it into both the AAU and the Southern Association of Colleges, though its library’s physical plant was extremely limited.

It’s fitting that, around the time Brittain started fretting over his library, his librarian was too, though that was less peculiar. Mrs. Dorothy Crosland, later immortalized as the namesake of the Crosland Tower, began obtaining Rockefeller grants to purchase much-needed material. The Tech collection of the Great Depression years was built on the back of Standard Oil money and housed in a monument dedicated to the legendary head of US Steel. Honestly, that feels rather appropriate.

The end of the Second World War saw another grant from the Carnegie Foundation, this time for Crosland to acquire “technical journals and rare scientific books in Europe,” with the trip itself financed by the alumni association. The value of seventeen crates of duplicate journals from Leeds University covered the cost of the trip, but Carnegie’s building couldn’t store all the material so rapidly accumulating - quite the opposite of the desolate shelves of its opening. Around the same time, the Georgia legislature, in a rare feat, remarked with surprise at how valuable the contents of the library were, and the associate director of the General Education Board, Hollis Edens, threw in his support behind the spiritual successor of Matheson in her quest to obtain a newer, better library.

Along came Judge S. Price Gilbert. For those familiar with the libraries of Tech, this story begins to write itself. His eldest son was a Tech graduate and the elder Price Gilbert served on the Board of Regents for nearly a decade, and was the 1944 commencement speaker, to boot. As had proven so fleeting in the past, Tech was getting the attention and support it needed from the institutions enacted to see to its success. By 1953, Georgia Tech had its new library, thanks to political and financial support from Price Gilbert and the administrative championing of Brittain and his successor, Blake Van Leer. Architect and faculty member Paul Heffernan’s design won critical and public acclaim and, “the facility quickly became a very popular visitor’s attraction and a major boost to faculty and administrative efforts to upgrade graduate education and research at Georgia Tech,” (McMath, 250).

In 1965, plans were completed for the expanded library tower next to Price Gilbert, which was finished in 1968. The graduate library dedication reads, “In a real sense these two buildings are a memorial to Dorothy M. Crosland, Director of Libraries. Through her industry, her persistence and perseverance, her foresightedness, both structures have been conceived and brought to completion.” The tower was officially renamed for her in 1985, following her death, but her legacy spans more than just libraries. Thanks to her efforts, Price Gilbert and Crosland Tower form the backbone of the library complex today, but her efforts in bringing co-eds to Tech in the 1950s, as well as midwifing the creation of the College of Computing in the 1960s as the School of Information, cannot be understated. Her 18 year stint as the Director of Libraries after her three decades of service as a librarian means she outlasted several presidents and was a steady fixture of campus through the Great Depression, World War II, integration, and the inauguration of full-time co-education, the name change from the Georgia School of Technology to the Institute, the tenures of Bill Alexander and Bobby Dodd, and the expansion of campus from a few blocks in Midtown to engulfing entire neighborhoods. For a time after the closure of the Evening School of Commerce, she was one of the few women of Tech. The renaming of the graduate library is a more than deserved honor for one of the unsung heroes of the Institute’s story.

Tech’s twin libraries remained largely unchanged for a few decades. Recently, though, that has changed. “Library Next” planning, in which Tech realized that a lot of its square footage was being occupied by books that, in an increasingly digital age, weren’t being physically requisitioned much anymore, led to a radical decision to turn that stagnant space into useable real estate. A deal with Emory University across town was hammered out and the Library Service Center, a consolidated location housing the majority of the collection of the two institutions, was constructed. This allowed the methodical renovation of the two buildings, combined with the opening of new study spaces in the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons, easing the loss of a significant portion of traditional roosts. Winter Break saw the opening of the latest phase of the reconstruction project, the oft-delayed Crosland Tower, while renovation shifted next door to Price Gilbert.

Ultimately, Chicago received its permanent library in 1897. Though no longer the central municipal public library, the registered landmark structure lives on today as the home of the largest Tiffany dome in the world and one of the largest public centers of culture and arts in the country. Meanwhile, the Carnegie Library is itself no longer a library, but home to some of the finest office space on campus. The brand-new Crosland Tower, though, is a wonder in its own right.

The recent renovation of the Instructional Center, into an ill-fitting derivative of the iconic, but perhaps increasingly overused mid-2010s campus vernacular architecture - clean lines, solid colors, and exposed concrete - was jarring enough to cause concern. West Village is a nice improvement over the surface parking lot that used to sit atop the central open space of the west side of campus, but it is wholly uninspiring externally.

The latest phase of the library project breathed fresh life into a style that needed a little direction. The very look of Georgia Tech has always been evolving, from late century Victorian to campus gothic, and later through modern to postmodern. The reimagining of Crosland Tower, with its iconic vernacular red brick complemented by large, airy windows, blends both the traditional palette and style with that of recent projects. The dark paneling on the walls of the new seventh floor reading room echoes elegant libraries of yore, while sticking true to the progressive design of the building and of recent campus projects, and its large wooden staircase pays homage to the very feature perhaps most iconic in Tech’s portfolio to the uninitiated outsider: the steps made famous in the 2013 movie The Internship.

It’s interesting, really. When googling “postmodern architecture,” the first image to appear is one of the new Harold Washington Library in Chicago. It’s a broad style, incorporating buildings like the BioTech Quad, which harken back to the forms of the old campus on the Hill, to fragmented structures like Clough Commons and the Love Building. The sterling reputations of these two buildings, while other new projects don’t measure up, comes not only from their generally impressive designs, but their incorporation of traditional aspects of campus, like red brick.

The early days of industrial cities, and their scions, the engineering institutions built to fuel the growth of American manufacturing and innovation, left minimal room for both error and fluff. Tech is a different place now. Its library is a different place now, too. The relentless march of progress, as befits Tech, rolls on.

What is left is the extreme irony of going from books without a library to the incredibly postmodern notion of a library without books.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

f you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.