A brighter, more open and vibrant George Peabody
Library awaits a university community and public that have
not been able to set foot in the historic, Victorian-era
institution for nearly two years.
The George Peabody Library, part of the university's
Sheridan Libraries, will celebrate its recently completed
renovation and grand reopening on May 8 with a gala to be
held at its 17 E. Mount Vernon Place home. Joining
President William R. Brody and Winston Tabb, dean of
university libraries and director of the Sheridan
Libraries, at the event will be noted authors and
journalists including Laura Lippman, Russell Baker and
Alice McDermott, a visiting professor in the Writing
Seminars. Honorary co-chair Laura Bush will send a special
The goal of the library's $1 million renovation
effort, begun in July 2002, was to create more streamlined
and workable interior spaces; modernize its heating and
air-conditioning systems; and polish a gem of a facility
that had somewhat dulled over the years.
Winston Tabb said that when the library officially
reopens on Tuesday, May 11, he envisions a new period in
its history when it will be able to better serve both the
public and the Johns Hopkins community.
"My greatest hope for the George Peabody Library is
that it will become much more immediately and fully a
resource for scholarship, teaching and learning at Johns
Hopkins," Tabb said. "While we are proud to continue the
125-year tradition of opening the library to the public, to
independent scholars — to anyone who has a desire to
learn — our particular mandate is to ensure that the
Peabody Library more actively and fully supports Johns
Renowned for its architectural interior, the library
has an atrium-style reading room with five tiers of
ornamental cast-iron balconies that rise dramatically to
the skylight 61 feet above the floor.
PHOTO BY HPS/WILL KIRK
While striking in appearance, the reading room was
seen as too dark for its purpose. To remedy the issue, the
original glass panes that sit under a peaked skylight have
been fixed and cleaned of a layer of dirt, and the room's
marble floor has been polished. The result is a more
brilliant space that has regained its original sparkle.
Gallery tables now line the middle of the reading
room's floor to allow library staff to closely monitor
those using the rare and fragile books.
"This gives us the ability to pull the readers to one
location so we can have a staff member there to answer any
questions as they are reading, and also to make sure they
are handling the books properly," said Cynthia Requardt,
curator of special collections for the Sheridan
The reading room's air-handling units were replaced
with a new state-of-the-art system to maintain more
appropriate environmental conditions — 68 degrees and
45 percent humidity — for a book collection.
A main feature of the renovation project, designed by
Washington-based Quinn Evans Architects, was the
repurposing of the front room to serve as an exhibition
gallery/visitors center. The front room previously was
cramped with several 12-foot dark wood tables, dark-stained
bookcases and hulking card catalogs. The room has been
gutted and repainted a taupe shade with colorful trim.
Workers stripped off the room's linoleum floor to reveal
pine planks, which have been refurbished. The 12-foot
tables have been shifted to alcoves between the stacks in
the reading room. The now wide-open front room contains
museum-quality display cases to exhibit volumes from the
"We are particularly eager," Tabb said, "to use the
large and inviting exhibition space to support Johns
Hopkins' educational role."
The first exhibition, "A Cathedral of Books:
Rediscovering George Peabody's Gift to Baltimore," features
more than 100 works from the collection and will run from
May 11 to Aug. 8.
The front room is now an
exhibition center and visitors center.
PHOTO BY HPS/WILL KIRK
Requardt said that the renovations to the library
purposely coincided with the physical overhaul of the
neighboring Peabody Institute. Since access to the library
was going to be impeded by construction crews, equipment
and other barriers, Requardt said the feeling was the
timing would be right to renovate a facility that had been
largely untouched in recent decades.
The renovation to the Peabody Institute, in fact,
caused the library to lose one space but gain another. The
storage space beneath the library's reading room was
transformed into the institute's new 95-seat Cohen-Davison
Family Theatre; the books once stored there now reside on
shelves in the reading room.
The space gained is the new seminar room, which is
located off the library's third level and inside Peabody's
new Grand Arcade that connects the Conservatory with the
library building. The seminar room was designed for
teaching purposes, to allow faculty and students to peruse
books in the library's collection that tie into the course
The other major change to the library was a renovation
to the back workroom. This multipurpose space now features
glass doors, a refurbished maple floor and stylish
The Peabody Library, which opened in 1878, was
designed by Baltimore architect Edmund G. Lind, in
collaboration with the first Peabody Institute provost,
Nathaniel H. Morison. The library remained part of the
institute until 1966, when the stewardship of its
collection was transferred to Baltimore City's Enoch Pratt
Free Library. In 1982, it was transferred again, this time
to Johns Hopkins University's library system.
The Peabody Library consists of a general reference
collection that contains approximately 300,000 volumes,
most of which date from the 18th to the early 20th
centuries. Strengths in the collection are archaeology,
British art and architecture, British and American history,
English and American literature, history of science,
geography, and exploration and travel, including a large
map collection. (The Peabody Institute's extensive
collection of music is housed in its own Friedheim
Major financial support for the library renovation
came from a grant by the Save America's Treasures program,
administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Requardt said that the renovation took a little longer
than anticipated, delayed in part by a "blip," she said,
referring to an August 2003 incident in which a blocked
drain caused a dispersion of condensed water down through
five floors of the library, damaging nearly 8,000 books.
The damaged books have since been restored and returned to
the shelves, and Requardt said she is looking forward to
the day next week when people will once again enter the
facility to see them and the rest of the collection.
"We're all eager to serve our readers again and have
them come and see this truly magnificent space," she