At a moment in history when you might have thought the library no longer relevant in the digital and virtual world, Yale University has invested in its past to burnish with new luster one of the most “sacred secular” spaces in North America: the nave of Sterling Memorial Library.
An example of the Collegiate Gothic style in the U.S. (among the first was Long Walk at Hartford’s Trinity College), Sterling is without peer. Designed by James Gamble Rogers in the late 1920s, it revels in a popular yearning by relatively young, New World institutions (for instance Yale, Chicago, Penn, Fordham) for the trappings of collegiate pedigree found at such Old World places as Oxford and Cambridge.
The architect conceived the entry hall of the library as a “cathedral of learning” and carried that metaphor quite far. One enters a 150-foot-long, 45-foot-high nave on axis with the circulation desk as the “high altar” at the far end. In the “side aisle” to the left of the nave is the card catalog; to the right are more staff accoutrements. Above the nave one finds leaded, stained-glass windows depicting the history of Yale and New Haven. Throughout there are carvings of academic saints, patrons and figures related to the library, its history and the greater world of books and knowledge.
Some 80 years after its “consecration” as a sanctuary of knowledge, Sterling was looking a little worse for wear. The limestone and sandstone interior had grown dark, mottled and moisture-stained; lighting was gloomy; card catalog cabinets bulged in the side aisle; the infrastructure for a functioning, contemporary library needed serious upgrading. […]