A Framework for the Future

By Debora Spar

In the spring of 2011, Barnard launched a strategic planning process. The goal, as with most such processes, was to outline our plans and dreams for the College’s next decade; to figure out as a community where we were heading, and how we wanted to go. I led most of the sessions myself, armed with some whiteboards, markers, and Professor Paul Hertz, who was serving at the time as our interim provost. They were lively sessions, and—despite a predictably wide range of people, opinions, and preferences—remarkably consistent. At each session, Professor Hertz and I asked: “What do you see as Barnard’s greatest challenge in the years ahead?” (We also asked, more optimistically, about the College’s greatest strengths and opportunities.) And at each session, voiced loudly and circled in red on every board and flip chart, was the single, simple word: SPACE.

From those beginnings—humble yet powerful—our new teaching and learning center was born. In the Strategic Plan, we outlined our hopes for a new building that would create sufficient space for the College to grow; embrace the latest technology and thought in library design; and brin students and faculty into closer proximity, “literally embracing the connections that lie at the core of Barnard’s learning philosophy.” We then consulted with real estate experts about the best possible site for such a space; with architectural planners about various construction plans and configurations; with faculty committees and library staff about needs for the new space; and with investment advisors about potential modes of funding. And now, nearly five years later, we find ourselves on the cusp of what will be a transformative building project—not only for the Barnard campus, but for the entire Barnard community as well.

Our students come to college to learn—to read and study and analyze texts and problems sets. They love the city, too, of course, as well as all of their extracurricular pursuits. But, for the most part, our students choose Barnard because they want to get the kind of education that we pride ourselves on providing. But our library, which should be the physical heart of our learning endeavor, simply does not live up to what our students and our faculty deserve. Our library staff is stellar. We have a dedicated team of top-notch archivists, a cutting-edge group of media technologists, and—unique to Barnard—a staff of research librarians who serve as individual consultants to our students. But the physical space that has housed and surrounded this staff since 1959 is far less impressive. It is a building built, understandably, for the learning environment of the mid-20th century, an environment dominated by stacks of books, single-space carrels, large check-out desks, and smoking lounges. Our students study differently today. They read online, they study with coffee, they work in groups with an ever-expanding array of media. They write, still, but they also produce films and zines and three-dimensional models. Our new library will give them the tools and space they need to create work that is relevant today and in the future.

When the building opens in 2018, it will give our campus an additional 63,000 square feet of total space, including 185 additional seats for reading and study and nine new classrooms. It will contain 155,000 books (nearly all of our current collection), still arranged in the kind of easily accessible shelves that allow for browsing and serendipitous discovery. It will house a digital movement laboratory, a maker space, and a digital humanities center—the kinds of flexible rooms and places that will allow our students and faculty to keep pace with the changing nature of education and pedagogy. Stretching across the sixth floor, it will also house an innovative Computational Science Center, a laboratory and teaching space that will both literally and figuratively connect computing technologies to our natural-science classrooms. Faculty offices in the new building will be light and open, bringing professors from our social sciences departments (economics, history, political science, and urban studies) into easy proximity with one another and providing spectacular views of both the city and the Hudson. Together, these new spaces will do much more than house and accommodate our students, faculty, and staff. They will be worthy of them, as well.

Buildings, of course, are only bricks and mortar (or, in this case, glass and metal). They cannot by themselves nurture a student’s mind or advance a professor’s research agenda. But all of us who have been involved in the design of our new teaching and learning center firmly believe that this space will, at long last, provide a physical home for Barnard’s intellectual heart. It will be a place that inspires and facilitates learning, a space for students to discover both others’ wisdom and their own minds. It will sit at the core of our campus and of our mission—to educate young women to understand the world they will inherit, and to send them into that world enriched and empowered by a love for learning. •