Library Visit: The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall Street, New Haven, CT

  • Designed by: Gordon Bunshaft
  • Style: modern
  • Materials: Vermont marble and granite, bronze, and glass
  • Groundbreaking: 1961
  • Completed: 1963
  • Cost: unknown, a gift from the Beineke Family
  • Updates: significant renovation begins May 2015
  • Holdings: over 500,000 items
  • Serves: Yale community and visiting scholars
  • Exhibitions: free and open to the public
  • Circulation: Non-circulating

I recently visited the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven, CT. Over the years I’ve seen pictures of the building, both inside and out. It was one of the buildings we discussed in the seminar that I took at the Newberry Library in 2012, Buildings for Books: Library Architecture from Ancient Times to the Present.

To say the library is unique in design is an understatement. There is a single, main stack in the center of the building, six floors of books on minimalist shelves surrounded by nothing but glass and lit to make the books glow like treasure. Around the stack is a mezzanine level with exhibition and event space. Surrounding all of this is a marble shell that allows in only diffused sunlight to protect the books from direct light. From outside in daylight hours the building looks white. After dark, the backlit marble casts an amber hue.

Sometimes when pictures take your breath away it can be a disappointment to see their subject in real life, particularly when it comes to buildings. Angles, fancy lenses, and filters can make architecture seem much more stunning than when seen by the naked eye. Rest assured that this is NOT the case with the Beinecke. Walking in and seeing the glow of the main stack full of rare books was awe-inspiring and fulfills the intention of being “an inspiration to all who enter.”

Below are some pictures that I took, but do yourself a favor and perform a Google image search of the Beinecke–you’ll see all sorts of gorgeous interior daytime shots and external nighttime shots.

The center stack holds 180,000 volumes. These six floors of rare books glow like treasures they are. Underground is space for an additional 600,000 books and millions of manuscripts. The Beinecke is among the largest buildings in the world dedicated to the holding and preservation of rare books and manuscripts.
Along the perimeter of the main stack are exhibits that are free and open to the public (note the black boxes on pedestals to the left) and some soft seating. The bluish light emanating from the left is from the lobby below. When you walk into the lobby, there are stairwells to the left and the right which lead up to this exhibit area on the mezzanine level. At first, I was too awed to think about taking pictures and then when I thought about it I didn’t take too many because, really, being present in the moment was the priority.
The book on display in the forefront is a Gutenberg Bible from the 1450s. This was one of the first books printed with movable type, a technology that radically changed how books are made. There are only 48 Gutenberg Bibles in the world, most of which are not complete. This one is.
From this angle, the building looks like a treasure chest, doesn’t it? The white squares are actually thin marble slabs that allow in diffused light during the day and cast an amber hue at night. (Again, do a Google image search to see what I’m talking about.)
Contrast: The modern Beinecke sits next to the Medieval style architecture of the Yale Law Library.
More contrast:  Corinthian columns and modern pedestals or piers.

I enjoyed the current exhibits, particularly Stephen Tennant: Work in Progress (through May 24, 2014). The name Tennant sounded vaguely familiar. It’s because he wrote the introduction to Willa Cather: On Writing, the book that contains Cather’s well-known essay, “The Novel Demeuble.” From the exhibit, I learned that Willa Cather was Tennant’s favorite writer and that he set out to befriend her. They eventually met and did become friends. After Cather’s death, Tennant became Edith Lewis’s (Cather’s partner) traveling companion. There is so much revision to be done on Cather’s biography.

For a list of current exhibits at the Beinecke, click here. Take some time to poke around the website while you’re at it, it’s full of great information and images.

Thanks for stopping by! Click here to see other library visits that I’ve made.

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