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Open for Business: Leyburn Library Unveils New Main Floor

Provost June Aprille, right, cuts the ribbon with University Librarian Merrily Taylor
Provost June Aprille, right, cuts the ribbon with University Librarian Merrily Taylor
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The renovated main floor of Washington and Lee University’s Leyburn Library looks so different that it’s hard to believe it’s the same place. What once was a dark, cluttered area now beckons with plenty of open space, natural light and student-approved furniture.

“Leyburn was in need of a major facelift,” said Merrily Taylor, University librarian, at the renovation’s debut on Feb. 2. “We needed to refurbish it for modern technology. Now it is much more comfortable. There is more capacity for using both technology and books, and we’ve taken advantage of the light. It’s exciting.”

People can’t stop talking about how light it is, which is obvious even to passers-by. “I saw it from the outside, and it looks awesome,” said first-year student Makenzie Hatfield. “It doesn’t look like we’re living in the ’70s anymore. I’m actually going to go there now.”

The University initiated the renovation in response to the changing needs of library patrons. Libraries once contained only books, magazines and newspapers, and forbade food, drink and talking. Today’s users, however, especially students, want to connect laptops, drink coffee and collaborate with classmates. Furthermore, said Taylor, “a library these days is still a place that has information, but it’s become a place that has to help patrons use that information.”

And so, in what Taylor calls “one-stop shopping,” the new information desk is staffed both with librarians and with personnel from Information Technology Services (ITS). They provide help with reference, circulation, interlibrary loan, computers, poster production, large-format scanning and printing. “Students can go to the desk and ask whatever question they need to ask,” said Rick Peterson, chief technology officer and head of ITS.

The renovation, which began last summer, proceeded in a smooth and timely fashion. A lion’s share of credit for the success goes to the collaboration between the staffs of the library and of ITS. SFCS Inc., an architectural, engineering and interior design firm from Roanoke, Va., and Mathers Construction Team, of Waynesboro, Va., brought in the $2.5 million project on time and on budget. Carole Bailey, of the construction administration area of W&L’s Facilities Management, managed the project.

More than $1 million of the total cost came from foundations, including the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Cabell Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Booth Ferris Foundation, the SunTrust Mid-Atlantic Foundation, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, the Dr. Scholl Foundation, the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, the Duckworth Charitable Foundation and the Marietta McNeill Morgan & Samuel Tate Morgan Jr. Foundation. The W&L Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations secured the funds.

When the renovation began, the first area to move from the main floor was Technical Services, which now occupies permanent space on Lower Level 1. Other people and functions shifted to temporary locations for the duration, and plywood partitions and plastic sheets enclosed the construction zone. Taylor shared her temporary office, the Boatwright Room, with a large statue of Ol’ George, and the staff unearthed artifacts as they packed up, including hula hoops, old Coke bottles and a wooden card catalog.

A committee comprising W&L staff, faculty and students provided guidance to the project. Students told the planners they wanted outlets for laptops, a place to grab a snack and furniture they could move around to suit their needs. Three of them even traveled to a furniture showroom in North Carolina to evaluate the chairs, sofas and tables. “The students were very thoughtful,” said Peterson.

As a result, the design includes small, lightweight tables that tuck in anywhere, and the so-called “eggs”—soft yet sturdy seats that patrons can easily haul around. Some arrangements resemble something one might find in a living room, with sofas and chairs clustered together. Others look like restaurant booths, with high backs on the bench seating for a bit of privacy. Rows of tables and computer stations provide space for laptops and books. A few sofas have small projection screens built into their backs, and low tables nearby have platforms so laptops can serve as projectors. A vending area—the café—hugs the eastern perimeter and offers stacks of current periodicals to browse.

It’s not just patrons who get to enjoy new furniture and spaces. Staff offices are set at an angle to the walls and open with sliding glass doors in front (for visitors) and in back (for meeting space).

Following W&L’s energy-saving efforts, a row of monitors and keyboards for checking e-mail and the Library catalog run off just one hard drive, and the new carpet is made of recycled materials.

A video editing room, an innovative lab and a so-called smart classroom for IT and library training meet technological needs. “We have high hopes for the innovative lab area to support academic projects,” said Peterson. “More and more media-related technology will be provided there.”

Two days after the opening, students were using the furnishings and spaces exactly as intended—sitting, lying, standing, talking, sprawling (even napping), in groups or solo.

“I think it’s great,” said first-year student Cooper Warner, studying in the café two days after the opening. “It’s my first time using it. It’s more aesthetically soothing, and nice and brighter.”

The new color scheme “reminds me of mint chocolate chip ice cream,” said senior Tabitha King, who was talking near the service desk with three friends on Feb. 4. “Tonight I’m going to study here and see how it is.”

“It makes you want to sit down and get to work,” said former University Librarian Barbara Brown at the opening. She planted the seeds of the renovation during her tenure.

The day after the debut, Taylor surveyed her sunny domain with satisfaction. “If the Elrod Commons is the living room of the University,” she said, “this is the study.”