One of the best things about the Association of Research Libraries spring meetings is that they are held in different parts of the country and hosted by member libraries in these areas. This year’s meeting was held in Chicago, and even though we met in the Downtown Marriott, we were transported by bus on the evening of Wednesday, May 4 to the University of Chicago for a reception and tour of the new Mansueto Library. It was worth the trip!

If you have not seen the new library, take a look at these pictures. The brochure for the new building describes it as “A Mecca for Scholars,” and you will quickly see why. The concept of this new library is that all materials for scholarship will be available on site for the University of Chicago community. While other libraries around the country are building high-density, off-site storage facilities, Chicago determined that the ability of faculty and students to roam freely in the stacks could not be compromised; doing so would deter serendipitous discovery and creativity.

The ideal is easy to understand, but how could the library store all of the books on site? The solution is ingenious: 3.5 million volumes are stored in high density robotic storage underground. The beautiful futuristic “bubble” that serves as the reading room is the part of the library that is visible, and five stories of underground boxes of library materials are automatically retrieved in a matter of minutes.

The other irony of this building is that the above-ground “bubble” is also the home of the conservation lab of the library. Most university libraries have located their preservation departments in the basement, protected from light. Chicago has chosen to put its state-of-the-art conservation lab on display, along with the digitization equipment that is allowing more of its collections to be seen and appreciated by a much larger audience. As the library staff explained, having preservation and digitization efforts in full view makes the core values of a research library more evident.

The University of Chicago Mansueto Library turns upside down all of the conventional notions about book storage and collection management. The solution the university chose is a costly one, but they believe that they have invested in the core principles of the research and discovery process. The result is inspiring, and when I saw the number of students using the library on that Wednesday evening, it seemed clear that they didn’t need to be convinced of the value.