This is CCL?

Not anymore. Yale's much-used but little-loved Cross Campus Library emerged from a 17-month renovation this fall with a new name and a completely new look.

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine.

Christopher Gardner

Christopher Gardner

Brick, wood, and warmly colored upholstery fill the seating area where the Cross Campus Library's circulation desk once stood. View full image

Things were getting a little rowdy on Cross Campus as midnight approached on October 18. The crowd had swelled to at least a thousand, and although the strongest drink available was hot chocolate, a number of students had evidently "pregamed" the event -- that is, they had made a point of doing their drinking ahead of time. As a series of speakers struggled to be heard over the undergraduate clamor, occasional lusty chants broke out: "Hit the books! Hit the books!" and sometimes just "Books! Books! Books!"

It was one of those only-in-the-Ivy-League moments: a substantial portion of the university had turned out for the midnight reopening of . . . a library. Inspired by the nocturnal galas at bookstores for the release of new Harry Potter volumes, associate university librarian Danuta Nitecki had hatched the idea to hold opening ceremonies at a time friendlier to students than to donors and dignitaries. (The grown-ups got their chance at the official dedication on November 30.)

After the preliminary remarks on the lawn, associate vice president Michael Morand ’87, ’93MDiv, started a countdown to midnight, and revelers shoved their way toward the new entrance pavilion near Berkeley College. At the stroke of 12, the crowd descended the stairs and saw for the first time the Bass Library, formerly known as the Cross Campus Library.

Even to a sleepy middle-aged observer, it had been apparent that much of the loud student enthusiasm for the occasion was ironic, and that it was significantly enhanced by the pregaming. But once students got inside, at least some of the reactions were sincere. "Oh my God. You have no idea what it was like before," a couple of upperclassmen told a freshman. "It was all just -- white."

Some tried out the soft leather chairs in the vicinity of where the circulation desk had once been. Others looked with genuine admiration at the oak desks in the updated, upmarket "weenie bins" (individual study rooms). The only things missing were the books, scheduled to be installed the next day. But Nitecki got the ball rolling with a procession and ceremony in which various campus leaders placed the first 17 books on the shelves. (The first was A Yale Album, the tercentennial photo collection edited by former art school dean Richard Benson. It was presented by William Wright II ’82, who had given $1 million.)

The opening capped a 17-month-long, $47.8 million renovation intended to fix persistent leaks, update mechanical systems, and reconfigure the building for changing functional requirements. But the project's most important achievement was to transform the appearance of a space that had been nearly universally condemned for its off-white fluorescent gloom.

The Cross Campus Library had been controversial from the beginning. When it was first conceived in 1968, as a way to make Sterling Memorial Library's most-read books more accessible, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes (who was a well-regarded architect despite this project) sought to give the underground addition plenty of natural light by introducing 16 skylights into the Cross Campus lawn. A group of students, faculty, and local preservationists protested, and Barnes produced a revised design that relied on courtyards and light wells at the corners of the lawn to provide some -- but considerably less -- daylight.

But a lack of vitamin D wasn't CCL's only problem. There were leaks almost from the time it opened in 1971, and library staff had to wield plastic sheeting and buckets in a never-ending battle with water. The cheap surface materials quickly began to show signs of age. Much of the problem was in the layout and aesthetics. "You always felt like you were lost," said Thomas Beeby ’65MArch, architect of the Bass renovation, at the rededication in November. "The architecture gave you no sense of well-being." Because an enclosed area for employees took up the center of the building, Beeby says, "you never had a sense of the whole space. It had a labyrinthine, claustrophobic quality that compounded the problem of its being underground."

Beeby, a former dean of the School of Architecture and a principal in the Chicago firm Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, sought to change all that. His firm rearranged the space from top to bottom. The main entrance is now at the south end of Cross Campus -- across the lawn from where it used to be. Users descend by stairs or elevator and pass through a cafe serving sustainable food. The main floor is now open in the middle, so that you can see from one end to the other. The connecting stair that once pierced the nave of Sterling Library has been removed and replaced by a grand octagonal limestone stair just off the nave. Machine City, the dimly lit canteen full of vending machines, has become a reading room (named for William Wright, whom University Librarian Alice Prochaska says is the first African American alumnus to make a major gift to the university). Even the tunnel between Sterling and the underground library has been spiffed up, with brick facing and a vaulted ceiling.

But the most striking change is in the palette of materials. In place of aluminum, drywall, and plastic, the new Bass Library boasts stone, brick, and wood. "Part of the aesthetics have to do with our intention to unify this library with other parts of the library and encourage people to see it as all part of one library," says Prochaska. "And so our architects looked very carefully at the architecture of Sterling and used all sorts of decorative features which reflect the decorative detail of Sterling." The shallow vaulted ceilings, for example, echo similar ceilings in the card catalog area off Sterling's nave. "If Sterling is the cathedral of reading," said Beeby at the dedication, "this is the crypt."

The new library also has a greater variety of study spaces. Just like in CCL, there are open areas with soft leather chairs, carrels, and those (somewhat) more attractive neo-weenie bins. But in addition, there are eight "group study areas" set off by glass partitions and fitted with plasma screens and furniture, set up in both living-room and conference-room layouts.

The remade library has about the same amount of shelf space as before, but the collection has changed significantly, and the total number of volumes has been reduced from 200,000 to 150,000. Prochaska says the library staff consulted with faculty to determine which books were most important for representing the core of each discipline.

For the most part, both the librarians and the users seem pleased by the renovation. Prochaska's only complaint was that some of the furniture was proving heavier and less portable than intended. A few visits during reading period found every corner of the library occupied with comfortable students, if not especially happy ones. (It was reading period.)

Was the result worth $47 million? Chief Investment Officer David Swensen ’80PhD says he has sometimes wondered about spending so much money on capital improvements. But a few years ago, he visited Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, which had recently renovated its library, and the librarian told him, "This magnificent structure creates a set of expectations that our scholars strive to fulfill." That statement, Swensen says, made him a believer.

Even the library's new name -- an homage to Anne T. Bass and Robert M. Bass ’71, who gave $13 million to fund the project -- seems to be catching on among students. This is no small feat on a campus where students still refer to University Health Services by its unfortunate former initials, DUH, some 36 years after it dropped the name Department of University Health. Many students have resolved never to stop saying "CCL." But, for the multitasking generation, the potential to save two syllables may be tilting the balance in favor of "Bass."

The new name may be taking hold because it's genuinely hard to imagine yourself in CCL when you're in the renovated space. "All traces of CCL have been obliterated," says Prochaska. "It's totally unrecognizable, and so much the better for it." 

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