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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 3, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 33
A Polished Peabody Library Reopens

Added light shines down on the reading room, where gallery tables now line up on a newly gleaming marble floor.

Two-year renovation updates historic home of reference collections

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

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 greeting.

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 Hopkins' mission."

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.

Cynthia Requardt

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 Libraries.

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 library's collection.

"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.

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 subject matter.

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 lighting.

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 Library.)

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 said.


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