The Stacks of the Gould Memorial Library

By November 1, 2010blog
Gould Memorial Library glass-floored stacks

Stanford White’s magnificent domed Gould Memorial Library sits beautifully at the western edge of the Bronx Community College, serving as a point of interest and inspiration for campus development since it was erected (under the banner of New York University) in 1899.

Gould Memorial Library RotundaYet for all the firmness and delight of the exterior and rotunda, its once vital stacks, the building’s raison d’être, glass-floored armatures for the storage, protection & access to books, stand as abandoned, forlorn and powerful as any ruin.

Gould Memorial Library glass-floored stacksGlass-floored stacks with light well and tension rod hangers.

Arranged as compact decks and compartments squeezed between the rectilinear plan of the exterior walls and the circular inner wall of the rotunda, one comes upon their empty disarray and thinks of what repositories of stone tablets must have looked like a century after paper was invented; imagines how people once flowed through the narrow, radical passages as they now flow through the circuits composing the internet; and confronts how they have been decommissioned as permanently as the great battleships.

Gould Memorial Library curved wallCurved wall of rotunda to left.

Despite the elegic feeling of the place, it’s not clear what’s really lost or what there is to commemorate. The books once held there are more widely accessible online, and the spaces themselves are like the bowels of a ship: disorienting, difficult to navigate, easy to get lost in. In their fragmented, radial layout the Gould’s stacks violate every principle of the open, easily accessible modern library.

Gould Memorial Library narrow passageThe audacity of narrow passages and steep stairs.

But for those of us who remember getting lost in the physical stacks, spending a day following a solitary interest from book to dusty book, without concern for the card catalog or the clock, simply in the immediate present of the printed page illuminated by daylight – well, it must have been a magnificent place to embark on such a journey.

Gould Memorial Library stacksThe 1899 version of a 4GB thumb drive

My deep thanks to my former collegue Ms. Robin Auchincloss AIA LEED-AP, the BCC’s Director of Campus Planning, for leading our tour of Gould, 11 years after my last visit.